Robbie Hummel sat on the training table in Purdue’s locker room with two thick bags of ice taped to both knees.
He tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee twice in less than eight months. The left knee also requires regular icing because of tendinitis, brought on by part of that knee being grafted into his right one.
Before all the blown knees, surgeries and ice, Hummel was All-Big Ten as a freshman and sophomore.
As a fifth-year senior this year, he was All-Big Ten. Yes, after all that.
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And tonight, Hummel will take the Boilermakers against No. 2-seed Kansas in the NCAA Tournament.
“He’s a stud, a stud,” KU coach Bill Self said. “How can you not respect a guy who has gone through what he has and still play at a high level?”
He ranked fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (16.1) and rebounding (7.1).
Without a true center on the team, the 6-foot-8, 220-pounder from Valparaiso, Ind., must shoulder the inside load. The load will be heavy tonight as he takes on KU’s twin inside muscle, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey.
But Hummel smiles and shrugs it off, noting that he and the Boilermakers have faced such big teams as Ohio State and Michigan State in the Big Ten.
That’s true, but Purdue was also 0-4 against those two teams. Hummel made 14 of 53 shots in the four games.
“Well, we’ll be OK,” he said. “I like our chances.”
You need confidence to come back from knee injuries. Still, he said, “Sometimes I wondered if I’d make it.”
While Purdue is in its sixth straight tournament, Hummel couldn’t dance in the last two. That was frustrating, but knowing how it all happened seemed to make it even harder.
A routine jump stop in a game on Feb. 24, 2010, left him with the first torn ACL.
“I’ve done that a thousand times,” Hummel said. “Go figure.”
Sweat, pain and work had him thinking he’d be ready for last season. But 15 minutes into the first practice in October 2010, he landed wrong and the right knee blew out again. Out for the season, a year the Boilermakers thought they would be a national contender.
Doubts crept inside his head.
“Will I be able to play at a high level again? Will I be able to shoot the ball?” he said. “There were times that I was asking myself if I’ll be on the court ever again.”
More sweat, pain and work and Hummel came back.
First exhibition game this year, he was knocked hard to the floor. But he bounced up with the knee still working. Confidence grew.
“Cutting, pushing off. Those were my fears,” he said. “You have to be knocked around a few times before you know you’re going to be OK.”
You don’t have to wait long to take those hard hits in the Big Ten.
Senior point guard Lewis Jackson watched and admired what he saw in his teammate.
“Most guys will quit after something like that,” Jackson said. “When I’m tired, if I’m nicked up, I look at what he’s been through and tell myself you need to be out there giving your heart just because he’s out there giving his, too.”
It took a while for Hummel to really to feel comfortable, probably until early February.
“He’s had a long road and didn’t get into rhythm shooting until then,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “You see all his hard work paying off, and you feel good about him.”
In Purdue’s motion offense — a style that dictated the Boilermakers’ play this year because of their lack of size — Hummel is constantly moving all over the court.
“He’s almost a big guard,” Self said. “He’s a skilled kid that can play big and get your big guy away from the basket. Kind of like (Missouri’s) Kim English, so he’s a challenge.”
And KU may be Hummel’s biggest challenge.
“I think for the next year I will continue to get explosiveness back because they say it’s a two-year process,” he said. “But the tournament is now. We’ll have to box out their big bodies.
“Am I ready? Of course.”