Tipoff: Purdue at Minnesota, 2:30, Sunday
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Has Purdue's A.J. Hammons finally -- finally -- earned starter status?
Coach Matt Painter won't go that far.
Or will he?
Hammons' career-best game against one of the nation's best teams suggests the time is right. Next up is Sunday's game at Minnesota.
“If A.J. can do what he's supposed to do and stay in the games,” Painter said, “if he continues to make strides like he has the past couple of weeks, we'll see. We're trying to get that consistent approach from him.”
The 7-foot Hammons had 18 points, 16 rebounds, five blocks and four assists in last Tuesday's 78-69 loss to No. 3 Ohio State. It could have been better given he was just 6-for-16 from the field and had four turnovers.
For the season Hammons averages 8.8 points and 7.5 rebounds. He has a Big Ten-best 50 blocks. If he can avoid foul trouble and play longer, those averages will rise to the level you'd expect from one of the conference's best big men.
"I notice I was going for stuff I think I can get and then I end up fouling," he said. "Sometimes I just have to let it go instead of picking up that silly foul. It's still being aggressive, but being in better position."
The sophomore has started seven of his 13 games. That he started against Ohio State, Painter suggested, had just as much to do with forward Travis Carroll being sidelined with an injury and forward Jay Simpson's lack of production after a recent illness.
Starter or not, Painter liked what he saw from Hammons.
“He was doing a better job of staying out of rotations and being quicker to the ball. Being in a (defensive) stance. Just being more alert. If you're always behind the play, it's tough to react. If you ahead of plays, you're set and just go for the ball.”
As a freshman, Hammons alternated big games with poor ones. While better this season, foul trouble has limited his playing time to a 20.8-minute average.
“He's made strides,” Painter said, “but he has a ways to go.”
Sometimes Hammons has been more effective coming off the bench than starting. And with Painter having used seven different starting combinations in the last eight games (senior Terone Johnson being the only consistent starter), lineup flexibility remains an option.
“The key is, what's best for your team,” Painter said. “If a guy is not ready to start, there's no sense in starting him. We're still trying to find out who's better starting, who's better coming off the bench.
“I've mixed our lineups. It hasn't been intentional. It's just kind of worked out that way. Hopefully we can get some consistency.”
Against Minnesota (11-3 overall, 0-1 in the Big Ten), Hammons could be a deciding factor.
"I have to out work their bigs," he said. "Their bigs are skilled. I have to contain the dribble and make sure I don't foul out."
Purdue (10-4, 0-1) has won three of the last four times it's played at Minnesota's Williams Arena. However, only seniors Terone Johnson and Carroll have played there for the Boilers.
“They have great fans,” Painter said. “It gets very loud. When it does, you have to have patience and quality possessions. That's very important because if they're able to get steals, the crowd really becomes a factor.
“It always gets back to control your own team in terms of effort and attitude. That's the focus for us. If you're in the right frame of mind, play hard, take care of the ball and play physical without fouling, you'll be in position to win.”
For Minnesota, coach Tubby Smith is out (now at Texas Tech) and Richard Pitino is in. The Gophers are coming off a 63-60 home loss to Michigan to snap a six-game winning streak.
Like Smith, Pitino coaches pressure defense. Sometimes it comes full court, sometimes not, but it is never passive.
“Against Michigan, they really picked up and got after it, but they didn't press,” Painter said. “They'll mix things up. They're good at hawking the ball. We have to do our best to be prepared for it, play strong and be fundamentally sound.”
While Pitino has brought changes, the Gophers aren't radically different from what they were under Smith.
“There some differences,” Painter said, “but there also are some similarities. There are changing of defenses and doing some different things out of the press. Sometimes they are really aggressive in the half court.”
Minnesota's three-guard attack of Austin Hollins, Andre Hollins and DeAndre Mathieu is formidable. Andre Hollins leads the team in scoring (15.9 points), and is second in assists (42). Mathieu leads in assists (66) and steals (28) while averaging 11.4 points. Austin Hollins averages 12.6 points and 6.9 rebounds. He has 40 assists and 25 steals.
Off-the-bench backcourt production comes from Malik Smith, who averages 9.9 points and who has a team-leading 29 three-pointers.
The inside game is handled by 6-11 Elliott Eliason. He's coming off a 10-point, 10-rebound effort against Michigan.
Painter said Andre Hollins is “a guy who can go off on any given night. He's just a talented player.”
Although not a big team, Painter said Minnesota, “Rebounds well. They're quick and athletic. That combination helps them chase down long rebounds.
“This will be a tough game. It's a tough venue. We have to do our best to play to our strengths, run good offense, and defensively slow down their guards.”