The Purdue Boilermakers have won four of their last five games heading into Wednesday's matchup against rival Indiana at 8:30 p.m. in West Lafayette. Freshman A.J. Hammons is a big reason - a 7-0, 280 pound reason – why the Boilermakers have improved during Big Ten play.
Hammons' importance to the Boilermakers success is evidenced in Purdue's last two games. He scored just two points and grabbed two rebounds in Purdue's 15 point loss at Michigan. He bounced back Sunday to score 7 points to go with a season-high 10 rebounds and three blocks in an overtime win against Iowa.
Wednesday Hammons faces the best big man in the Big Ten, the nation's preseason player of the year, when Cody Zeller and the Hoosiers visit Mackey Arena.
"I have never played against him," said Hammons before practice Tuesday. "He runs the floor very well. He's very physical, rebounds, always hustling. So it's going to be a challenge to guard him."
Hammons leads the Big Ten in blocked shots with a 2.9 average in conference games.
"Big A.J. has been a big help for us, being that shot blocking presence," said Purdue senior D.J. Byrd. "When he gets moving and gets really active it's hard for them to get easy looks inside the paint."
Purdue makes the fewest three pointers of any team in the Big Ten, and shoots under 32% behind the arc. The Boilermakers count on points in the paint. They want to feed Hammons the basketball. Purdue has scored 320 of its 588 points (54.4 percent) over their last nine games inside the lane.
"I have to stay out of foul trouble," said Hammons. "Sometimes I see when I'm out of the game, it's harder for us to score. I have to get in a little better shape and stay on the court more and play as hard as I can."
"He just has to be focused and have his mind right on what he has to do," says Byrd. "When he's active, it's difficult to get shots over him in the lane. When he's rebounding like he did versus Iowa, I thought he did a great job of making strong, timely rebounds."
Purdue's best chance for a signature win this season, a win that could eventually help the Boilermakers reach the NCAA tourney, might be against the Hoosiers. Purdue (11-9, 4-3) hovers just above .500 overall and in the Big Ten. The league is strong enough this season that a 9-9 conference finish could earn a ticket to the field of 68. But a win against the likes of IU (18-2, 6-1) would be a huge boost to the Boilermakers resume.
"Our goal is still to try to win the Big Ten," said Purdue junior Terone Johnson. "That comes with trying to get these wins against pretty good teams like IU."