Purdue relies on quartet of freshmen talent to lead the way
WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -- The label makes their eyes roll, but Purdue players recognize why it exists.
When you remove the two best pieces from an NCAA tournament team, add four ballyhooed freshmen to a roster with just one senior, mix it up and get an even better product, the result is this: a brand name. The Baby Boilers.
It even has its own Wikipedia entry.
"Our team's basically freshmen and sophomores," sophomore guard Chris Kramer said. "We've got one junior [Nemanja Calasan] and one senior [Tarrance Crump] that plays, so we're young in that sense. But we've really matured a lot.
"So the Baby Boilers thing, we think it should be gone."
Don't hold your breath. As long as Purdue keeps winning, the tag isn't going anywhere.
The 18th-ranked Boilermakers enter this week's NCAA tournament well ahead of schedule. Despite starting four underclassmen and bringing several others off the bench, the Boilermakers (24-8) finished second in the Big Ten regular season.
The beyond-their-years rise was facilitated by Big Ten Coach of the Year Matt Painter and carried out by a group that built synergy long before the season.
Freshmen E'Twaun Moore, Robbie Hummel and Scott Martin played AAU ball together and teamed with classmate JaJuan Johnson on the Indiana State All-Star squad. Martin and Hummel were high school teammates who first met as 6-year-olds playing soccer in their hometown of Valparaiso, Ind.
The decorated group had history together when they arrived on campus. Now they're trying to make some in March.
"We're young and we have nothing to lose," said Hummel, a first-team All-Big Ten selection. "But at the same time, we think, 'Why not now?'"
The future of Purdue basketball can be found in adjacent rooms at the end of the second floor of Cary Quad Northeast, a residence hall located steps from Mackey Arena.
Hummel and Moore reside in Room 204. Martin and Johnson occupy Room 202. The four share a bathroom.
Inside these walls live three of Purdue's top four scorers -- Moore (12.7 ppg), Hummel (11.6 ppg) and Martin (8.6 ppg) -- the team's top three rebounders (Hummel, Martin and Moore) and the top shot blocker (Johnson with 1.0 bpg). But aside from the two students sitting on Martin's bed playing PlayStation 3 on a recent afternoon, the freshmen reside in relative anonymity.
"It's real quiet," Johnson said as he typed on his laptop. "It's relaxing."
Added Martin: "We don't really know that many people. I don't even know if they would know who we are."
There's no mistaking them on the court.
Moore is Purdue's trigger man, a 6-foot-3 guard who can create his own shot. He tweaked his shooting mechanics to complement his off-the-dribble driving skills, and likely will become the first true freshman ever to lead Purdue in scoring.
"He's just so smooth, everything comes so easy for him," Kramer said. "When the game's tough, he wants the ball. You're going to live and die by that, and that's something he can live with."
Hummel's skill set is unmatched in the Big Ten. The 6-8 swingman ranks 17th in the league in scoring, leads the league in 3-point shooting (46.5 percent) and is among the top 15 in rebounds (6.1 rpg, 10th), steals (1.35 rpg, 9th), field-goal percentage (49.8 rpg, 8th) and free-throw percentage (86.0, 2nd).
If guts were measured, Hummel would be up there, too.
"He's much tougher than people give him credit for," said Wayne Brumm, who coached Hummel, Martin and Moore with the SYF Players AAU team. "You look at his body and you think, 'Ah, man, he's a skinny white kid. He's not going to be able to compete.' Going back to when I was in high school, you always ran into those skinny kids who were tough as nails. He's one of those guys."
His attitude fit perfectly at Purdue, where Painter was trying to restore a gritty style the program had been known for under longtime coach Gene Keady. As an inscription above the Mackey Arena tunnel reminds players: It's Time To Play Hard.
Purdue has done so this season, forcing a league-leading 568 turnovers and ranking 19th nationally in scoring defense (60.8 ppg).
"We play how Coach Keady got Purdue basketball to play," said Kramer, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and steals leader (2.26 spg). "We play hard and play defense."
When Painter began recruiting the freshmen, all of whom grew up within 100 miles of campus, he didn't need to provide a tutorial on what Purdue once was. He had to caution against what Purdue had become.
The Boilermakers went 7-21 in Keady's final season, their worst mark since 1952-53, and didn't fare much better in Painter's first go-round (9-19).
"The dream is trying to win a championship, trying to get to a Final Four," Painter said. "When you're last place in the Big Ten, you get laughed at when you're trying to sell that dream. We were just trying to get them to understand they had an opportunity to help us get back to the mountaintop. That excited them."
The same opportunity excited Painter in 1989, when he began playing for Keady. The Muncie, Ind., native grew up an Indiana fan, but when the Hoosiers didn't offer a scholarship, his college choice became easy.
"Why should I go anyplace else?" said Painter, who helped Purdue to three NCAA tournaments and served as captain in the 1992-93 season. "To me, Purdue was good enough. I've always been taught to stay loyal to your own.
"These guys did the same thing."
Moore received heavy interest from more stable programs, including Arizona. Michigan was close to landing Martin. Brumm thinks Hummel would have committed to N.C. State had Herb Sendek remained as coach there.
But in the end, Painter, who Moore describes as "just a plain, simple guy," got his message through. At the AAU Boo Williams Invitational in Virginia, the players talked about being together for college, though they swear the decisions were made individually.
All three committed during an eight-day span in July 2006.
"It meant something to come here," Martin said. "We all wanted to help the program and leave our mark as a group. That was important to us."
The familiarity between Hummel, Martin, Moore and even Johnson eased the transition to college ball. It helped that Painter runs a motion offense similar to the systems used by SYF Players and Valparaiso High School.
But the Boilermakers' ultimate fate hinged on how the freshmen would mesh with their (slightly) older teammates.
Purdue struggled early, dropping games to Wofford and Iowa State in December. It wasn't until an extended break before Big Ten play that the team began to take shape.
After splitting the first two league games, the Boilermakers won 11 straight, marking their best Big Ten start in 20 years. They won eight contests by eight points or fewer during the streak, including a pair against eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin.
"You could see they started trusting each other," Brumm said.
They haven't stopped.
Skeptics undoubtedly will point to age when evaluating Purdue's tournament potential. But like the Baby Boilers label, players don't buy it.
"After you play so many games, you're not freshmen," Hummel said. "I don't think we have a young team anymore."
Adam Rittenberg covers college football and college basketball for ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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