KRAVITZ: With Haas on the sidelines playing cheerleader, Haarms steps into the tournament limelight

Purdue's Isaac Haas worked out with his broken arm in a cast Saturday, March 17, 2018. (WTHR image by Ben Reiff)
Bob Kravitz

DETROIT, Mich. (WTHR) - For a half hour, and maybe not even that long Friday night, Purdue players and coaches mourned the apparent end of Isaac Haas’ NCAA career. (I say apparent because he showed up at Saturday’s practice and shot left-handed free throws, but is highly unlikely to return this season). They walked around hanging their heads, speechless at the latest right cross of bad luck to hit the Purdue program across the face – remember Glenn Robinson and Robbie Hummel? – all of them feeling terrible for the noble senior who hoped to lead the Boilers to the Final Four.

And then it was back to work because there’s really no choice in the matter, because No. 2 seed Purdue has to prepare immediately for Sunday’s NCAA second-round game against No. 10 Butler. What looked like a mismatch back in December at the Crossroads Classic, what looked like a mismatch in the moments before Haas injured his right elbow against Cal State-Fullerton, now has the feeling of a tossup – especially if Kelan Martin and Kamar Baldwin play the way they did in their opener against Arkansas.

One thing to know, though, is Purdue is not done dreaming about making it to San Antonio, Haas or no Haas.

“We have a chance to write this great story,’’ Vincent Edwards said. “We’re well aware of that.’’

I asked P.J. Thompson what he would say to people – like, um, me – who think Purdue’s Final Four dreams have now been regrettably dashed.

“That’s fine, and everybody is entitled to their opinion,’’ he said evenly. “We still feel like we have a lot of good players in this locker room and we believe we can still do great things.’’

We heard what we expected to hear in the Purdue locker room Saturday, heard what we should hear, honestly.

It’s next man up.

Matt Haarms (32) will be asked to step up for Purdue Sunday against Butler in the NCAA second round tournament game. (Image from Purdue basketball/Twitter)

Matt Haarms plays a lot of minutes anyway; he’ll be fine.

We played well when Vincent Edwards was injured late in the season.

Did we mention: Next man up…?

So now we turn to Haas’ replacement, Matt Haarms, who is all elbows and knees and vowels, a tangle of acute angles that look like they could cut you if you draw too close to the Purdue freshman center from The Netherlands. Atop his head, there’s a swatch of blondish hair, which he is forever removing from his eyes. For two years, one a redshirt year and then this, his freshman year, the New Age Dunkin’ Dutchman has worked and worked with assistant coaches, working to gain weight – he’s added about 25 pounds since he got to campus – and working to develop his low-post game.

“The thing about him (Haarms) is, he never backs down,’’ Painter said. “He got here, (Caleb) Swanigan and Haas used him as a pinball, but the one thing – and I’m laughing but I’m sure it wasn’t funny to him – he had some tough days, some really tough days, but he kept coming back. He always fights. He doesn’t give into things. So I know he’ll give his best effort.’’

Well, here it comes – Haarms’ big chance, all of it coming one year before anybody would have preferred or expected. When Purdue and Butler meet at Little Caesar’s Arena Sunday afternoon, Haarms will be the Boilers’ center, if not quite their center of attention. It’s an undeniable loss offensively; Haarms is growing his low-post game and can hit from the perimeter – he’s a typical Euro big man – but he isn’t the low-post beast that sometimes forces opposing coaches to double-team Haas in the post. But he’s a step or two beyond Haas defensively, much more swift-footed, capable of covering up for teammates, more effective when the offense involves the center in the pick-and-roll.

Haarms drastically changes Purdue’s offensive approach, but that’s not necessarily a negative assessment. With Haas, you had the low-post presence, an easy outlet. With Haarms, you have more of a Domantas Sabonis-like presence, a fleet offensive player who can set screens out on the floor, reverse the ball, make space and create more opportunities for teammates.

“Matt’s played the whole year and he’s done a good job for us,’’ Painter said of Haarms, who averaged over 16 minutes per game. “He played 27 minutes in the game against Butler (earlier this year at Bankers Life Fieldhouse). He’s long, he’s athletic, he can run, he can block shots. He knows what’s going on. The game matters to him.

“It’s a great opportunity for him to be able to step up and stay in his role, be really good at being Matt Haarms. You don’t have to be something else. And I think that’s going to be important for us that he brings that energy and helps us get going on both ends of the floor.

It won’t just be Haarms, though. If he runs into foul trouble, watch for Jacquil Taylor. Or Purdue could go with a small lineup features Vincent Edwards at the 5-spot.

One thing Haarms will bring is this: Enthusiasm. He’s eternally active, celebrating big plays with violent fist pumps. He’s a 7-foot-3-inch bundle of nerve endings.

“Playing hard is everything, and not just pumping your fist,’’ said assistant coach Brandon Brantley, who has worked long hours with Haarms. “But he brings that energy. I can’t say I’ve seen him come to practice and not have energy. He knows he’s got a great opportunity and he wants to make the best of it.’’

The first meeting between the two teams means nothing. That was December; this is March. That was with Haas playing 16 minutes in the middle for Purdue; Sunday, he won’t play. Teams are ever-changing organisms; the Purdue and Butler teams of December are very different than they are in March. What I’m saying is, despite the fact that it’s a 10/2 seed matchup, it’s a tossup. The good news, though, is somebody from our area is going to Boston next week.

“We’ve had this before and we fought through it,’’ Haarms said, referring to Vincent Edwards’ late-season ankle injury. “In the end, it comes down to what we’re about and we can still be a very good team.’’

For Painter, the Haas injury felt vaguely, uncomfortably familiar. In 2010, a Purdue team with Final Four aspirations lost Robbie Hummel to a knee injury. When that happened, Painter still had three Big Ten games and two Big Ten tournament games to prepare and come to terms with life without Hummel. This time, he’s got less than 48 hours.

“It’s really not that big of a challenge (adjusting to life after Haas),’’ Painter said. “He (Haas) only played about half the (minutes, 23.4 per game this year), anyway.’’

Haas will be there Sunday, but only as the world’s biggest cheerleader. Purdue wants to write a special story, and they want to write it for the big guy, who got them here but won’t be able to take them home, or all the way to San Antonio. If they can pull this off, it will be one heck of a story.

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