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March 16, 2009In the preseason, Robbie Hummel was picked as the Big Ten's preseason player-of-the-year, viewed as a potential All-American and regarded as the centerpiece of a title-caliber team.
He heads into the postseason as the Big Ten Tournament's Most Outstanding Player, his Purdue team celebrating the championship it's longed for during the past year.
But though the end may jibe with initial expectation, the path from Point A to Point B for the Boilermaker sophomore forward was anything but linear.
And it certainly wasn't easy.
A season many expected to serve as Hummel's coronation as one of college basketball's elite players - he was a Wooden Award finalist and first-team All-Big Ten selection as just a true freshman - was thrown horribly off track just as conference play tipped off.
It was then that a nagging back injury, since revealed to be a long-standing hairline fracture of one of the vertebra in his back, hit critical mass.
In a then-shocking home overtime loss to Illinois to start Big Ten play, Hummel was barely recognizable. He played 39 minutes and grabbed 11 rebounds, but took just seven shots and uncharacteristically blended into the background as a non-factor.
Afterwards, he could barely stand under his own power. So he was propped up on crutches.
He didn't play in the next game, at Penn State, and Purdue lost that one, too, starting a shocking 0-2 in Big Ten play.
From there, he'd return to be part of a six-game winning streak, even though he'd gone weeks without so much as practicing. The six-game run put the Boilermakers back in the league race, but it would be fleeting.
Hummel spent the next few weeks, weaving in and out of the lineup, straddling the line between being on the court and being on the bench, saddled with the anxiety that might come with knowing your back is literally broken.
Perpetually listed as "game to game," Hummel was at the mercy not only of his back's whims, but also the opinions of doctors charged with determining whether he should be playing at all in his condition. In late February, that opinion varied, stoking the angst all the more.
"I think it's been mentally challenging for him," said sophomore classmate JaJuan Johnson, who succeeded Hummel this season as a first-team All-Big Ten player; Hummel, despite missing four games and being limited in others, was named to the third team. "He didn't know if he was going play in one game, or then the next game."
It didn't help that his team, of which so much was expected, struggled without him. Purdue was 1-3 in Big Ten play this season without Hummel.
For a player defined by his competitiveness as much as his ample ability and Swiss Army Knife versatility, life as a spectator was agony.
"It was tough being hurt," Hummel said. "I didn't really know how to handle that. I'd never been hurt before. I just had to watch games from the sideline and try to get better."
But after he sat out three consecutive games - two of them losses - Hummel's pain subsided to a tolerable level and he returned to the court, equipped with a hard-plastic, turtle-shell sort of brace protecting his torso.
Hummel returned to the floor once again, playing well below 100-percent physical standing, but the Boilermakers finished the season on a deflating streak of three losses in four games, undercutting their possible NCAA Tournament claim that most of their league losses could be chalked up to Hummel's injury.
After battling Michigan State for the conference championship well into late February, the Boilermakers finished four games, nearly a quarter of an 18-game league schedule, behind the Spartans.
After a devastating home loss to Northwestern in Purdue's March debut, Hummel and fellow co-captain Chris Kramer were among those who were outspoken following the inexplicable loss. What's been described as a "player's only" meeting took place after that game in which Purdue's effort was, let's say, less than exemplary.
"We just talked about, 'What do we want our season to be?'" Hummel said. "Did we want to go to the Big Ten Tournament and lose our first game and be an 8 or 9 (NCAA Tournament) seed? If we didn't want that, we had to do something about it and step up in practice."
The message obviously struck a nerve.
In Indianapolis, the Boilermakers, healthier now than at any time since Christmas, plowed over Penn State and Illinois to open the Big Ten Tournament, then rallied from a six-point second-half deficit to beat Ohio State in the final.
It was Purdue's first Big Ten championship of any kind since 1996, its first-ever postseason tournament league crown.
To a man, virtually every Boilermaker played some of their best basketball of the season during the Big Ten Tournament, but the difference was Hummel, tabbed as the event's Most Outstanding Player after averaging 16 points and 9.3 rebounds in the three games.
Playing three games in three days after at one point going weeks without so much as practicing, Hummel played with more energy and bounce in his step than at any time since the non-conference season. That was apparent on those occasions when Hummel assertively drove off the dribble for pull-up jumpers or layups or elevated to grab rebounds above the rim.
Hummel served notice immediately that he was back, that term rich with such irony in this case, scoring Purdue's first five points against Penn State Friday night en route to a 20-point game and a 14-point win, one that was never in doubt.
"He's persevered," Coach Matt Painter said. "He's hung in there and stayed positive. It's frustrating, because you're out there playing before and trying to help your team win, and you're not even close to 100-percent. It disappoints you, because you want to go out there and play better.
"But this tournament was big for him, getting to play three days in a row. ... He still had some pop in his legs. He made a pull-up against Illinois off the glass. I thought that was kind of the tell-tale for him that he was feeling good, because he hasn't made a pull-up like that in a long time. That's kind of a signature thing for him."
Hummel will again have to rest his back, likely for many weeks, once the season concludes.
But laying idle in the off-season won't bother him nearly as much as missing games this season did.
"It makes you stronger," Hummel said, reflecting on the chaos he's endured this season, "and it makes you look at things differently. You appreciate playing a whole lot more."
Purdue certainly appreciates him.
Behind Hummel's efforts in Conseco Fieldhouse, Purdue has that long-awaited championship to celebrate and goes into the NCAA Tournament, as the No. 5 seed in the West, with momentum on its side.
"There's no better time to be playing good basketball than right now," Johnson said.
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