- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 22, 2008

During recruiting season a year ago, Purdue basketball coach Matt Painter told his staff all four high school players they targeted had to be signed. Or else.

“We put a lot of time into it, almost to the point where if we wouldn’t have gotten them, it really would have set us back,” he said.

“At times our staff would say that. ‘What happens if we don’t get these guys?” And I just flat said, ‘We’ll, we’re gettin’ ‘em. Don’t worry about it.’ It’s the kind of attitude you have to have sometimes. It doesn’t always work, though.”

It worked this time. Purdue landed the recruits, the entire bunch. Even better, they all hail from Indiana, where some people like to think basketball was really invented. Robbie Hummel and Scott Martin, a pair of 6-foot-8 swingmen, were teammates at Valparaiso High School. E’Twaun Moore, a 6-3 guard, came from East Chicago. JaJuan Johnson, a 6-10 post player, is from Indianapolis.

With Hummel and Moore starting and Johnson and Martin filling key reserve roles, Purdue might be the youngest big-time college basketball team in the country. What makes that more than just vaguely interesting is that the Boilermakers (25-8), a No. 6 seed in the West Region, will play third-seeded Xavier (28-6) in the second round of the NCAA tournament today at Verizon Center.

Even though Purdue lost two its top two scorers from last year’s 22-12 team that beat Arizona in an NCAA first-round game, the coaches believed the freshmen were good enough and would fit in well enough with the veterans that returning to the tournament was more than realistic.

“We felt like we had better pieces than we had last year, better skill at each position,” assistant coach Paul Lusk said. “And we felt like we had an NCAA tournament-type team. But were we gonna have the resume at the end of the year to get into it? We didn’t know if we’d find it that quick.”

Actually, they didn’t. The Boilermakers, who had all four freshmen starting at times during the preseason, hit a rough patch in December. In a four-game stretch, they lost to Wofford and Iowa State, barely beat Missouri State and fell behind Florida International 16-0 before winning.

“We were in a bad place,” said Painter, a former Purdue guard who took Southern Illinois to the NCAA tournament in 2004 before returning to his alma mater the next year as the designated successor to his old coach, Gene Keady.

“We struggled with finals, we struggled with some time off,” Painter said. “I was scared, to say the least, but I did know we had enough talent in our locker room to win the Big Ten. I didn’t think we had the experience, but I knew we had the talent.”

Hummel, who played on the same AAU team as Martin and Moore, said, “I think we always thought we could be in the NCAA tournament, but we obviously had to work very hard and go through some tough times to get here.”

Painter, his staff and the players figured things out and the Boilermakers went 15-3 in conference play to finish a game behind Wisconsin. They lost two of their last three, including a loss to lightly regarded Illinois in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals but made up for that with a 90-79 victory over Baylor on Thursday in an NCAA first-round game.

“We evolved,” Moore said. “It wasn’t like, one day we got good. It gradually happened.”

Even though Painter wasn’t pleased with Purdue’s defense in the Baylor game, the Boilermakers controlled the explosive Bears, who led the Big 12 in scoring. They also had five players score in double-figures, including sophomore guards Keaton Grant and Chris Kramer, the Big Ten defensive player of the year, and senior guard Tarrance Crump.

So there is more to this team than what has been dubbed the “Baby Boilers.”

But the kids are providing most of the buzz. Hummel is second on the team in scoring, first in rebounding and earned first-team All-Big Ten honors. Moore, the runner-up to Indiana freshman sensation Eric Gordon as the state’s Mr. Basketball, is the Boilermakers’ top scorer and was second team all-conference. He had 16 points, eight rebounds and four assists against Baylor.

Johnson, who started the first 17 games, is the top shot-blocker. With 10 points, eight rebounds and two blocks in 20 minutes on Thursday, he had one of his best games of the year. Martin does a little bit of everything.

“I saw them all playing high school and AAU and I knew they were the real deal,” Kramer said. “They could come in and really buy into what Coach Painter wanted us to do. We saw the potential in the summer, going through individual workouts and open gyms. They just meshed once we got into practice. You can see now why they were so highly ranked.”

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