By CLIFF BRUNT
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — It was a surreal moment at Mackey Arena.
Purdue trailed rival Indiana 57-39 in the second half on Wednesday night, yet you’d never know it based on the electricity in the building. As A.J. Hammons strode to the bench for a break, he waved his arms in the air, exhorting the crowd. The Boilermaker faithful erupted, oblivious to what was clearly a lost cause on the scoreboard.
That’s because Purdue was winning the game within the game.
Indiana obliterated Purdue 97-60 in one of the biggest blowouts in the history of the series, yet it was easy to see why Hammons and the fans were fired up. The 7-foot post was merely taking a short recess before continuing to take the nation’s best player to school and making him write sentences on the chalkboard during detention. Hammons’ 30 points, five rebounds and five blocks mostly came against a seemingly defenseless Cody Zeller, the preseason national player of the year.
Rarely does much good come from such a brutal defeat, but that sliver of hope in an otherwise dismal performance for Purdue could be the best thing that has happened to the Boilermakers this season.
Give Zeller credit for a strong first half — 13 points and nine rebounds. Give him credit for getting the inexperienced Hammons into foul trouble, something that paid huge dividends for his team. Give him credit for keeping Hammons off the boards for the most part. And give the Hoosiers credit for an impressive win.
But let’s make no mistake: Hammons won the battle against Zeller, and that bears a second look. For the first time all season, Hammons seemed to realize he cannot be stopped if he decides to be a wrecking machine. Such was his brilliance that Doug Griffiths, an ISL writer who covered the Boilermakers for years for Gold and Black Illustrated, said it reminded him of the way Glenn Robinson used to dominate. That’s high praise from someone who knows his stuff.
The fans knew they were seeing something special, too. That’s why they were cheering like it was a one-point game when there was no chance Purdue could win. As Hammons waved his arms, he seemingly was letting the crowd, the Hoosiers and NBA scouts know to brace themselves because there’s more where that came from.
Here’s the bottom line: Hammons is Purdue’s best player, the one whom everything should be built around on both ends of the floor. Purdue’s players seemed resistant to this fact, as evidenced by his occasional disappearance from the offense. Because there is no longer doubt about Hammons’ ability, his teammates should be much more willing to accommodate the need for him to touch the ball. Because the Boilermakers have unleashed such a destructive force, other people will be open and Purdue’s offense, which has appeared lost at times, should now be much more focused. Hammons should borrow his motto from WWE star Ryback: Feed Me More.
So, what’s next for Hammons?
Do it again.
Northwestern is next. Hammons will face Alex Olah on Saturday, a 7-foot, 275-pound Romanian who is light on his feet but can’t match Hammons’ strength. Hammons needs to be physical with him, just like he was against Zeller. He needs to impose his will. He needs to own the paint.
If he can do it again, everything changes for the Boilermakers. Their rise through the Big Ten accelerates and they become a threat to cause all sorts of problems the rest of the season.
Here’s another challenge Hammons will face now: constant double teams. Nobody else is going to let Hammons eat their centers alive without assigning help. That means he needs to use his court awareness to help his teammates. Hammons is a skilled passer. If he shows the ability to spot open teammates when he is double teamed, they will much more easily buy into his role as the man.
The last and most important challenge for Hammons is to stay hungry. Everyone is telling him how great he is. The performance against Zeller was impressive, no doubt. His growth as a player has been stunning. He’s well ahead of where JaJuan Johnson was at the same point in his career and his game is growing just as quickly. In a month, he has gone from being a somewhat soft finesse player to a beast who might not be in West Lafayette for a full four years. The NBA likes 7-foot tanks with skill, athletic ability and nastiness.
One big game can’t be enough. As I often tell young guys, getting a date and keeping a girlfriend require different skill sets. He’s gotten the date, knocked it out of the park and folks are still interested. Now, it’s time to make Purdue fans and NBA scouts fall head over heels. I believe he has that skill set, too.
Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/cliffbrunt_isl.