It wasn't going to be easy even with Hummel in the lineup. Without the junior forward, a national player of the year candidate, maybe you'll see four-guard lineups, Chris Kramer guard guys a foot taller and see what freshmen Patrick Bade and D.J. Byrd are really made of.
If you're coach Matt Painter entering the final three regular season games, starting Sunday with No. 14 Michigan State, you find another way because that's the only option.
“It's an unbelievable challenge,” he said. “We have to become stronger. We have to adjust in how we play, but not a lot. It's still the same team. We have to collectively do a good job and just take the next game like we've been doing.”
His message is clear – forget what the Boilers don't have and focus on what they do: a 10-game winning streak, the Big Ten lead, a pair of all-conference players in E'Twaun Moore and JaJaun Johnson, perhaps the best defender in school history (Kramer), a senior guard rising to big-play moments (Keaton Grant) and enough role players to see this thing through.
“Our question is whether we play big or small, but whatever we do, we have to do a good job playing well as a group,” Painter said. “Our quality of play is what's important.”
No one player will replace Hummel's 15.7 points, 6.9 rebounds, 90.2 percent free throw shooting and overall leadership and versatility. Look for Grant to move back into the starting lineup, although that could change, Painter said, depending on the opponent.
“We have some interchangeable parts,” he said. “Kramer can guard a lot of different people. E'Twaun Moore has developed into a good defender. Kelsey Barlow has the size to guard a (shooting guard), a (small forward) and possibly a (power forward). Byrd and Bade will have to give us some minutes.
“The offense won't change much. Maybe we'll be a little more patient and try to get better looks. Basically we have to play to our strengths and do what we can do. Don't step out of the box. Do what you do well, stick with it, play hard. It's going to be a little bit from everybody. It's not going to be Willis Reed limping out of the tunnel.”
Painter's reference to the New York Knick great whose return from injury spurred his team to a NBA title reflected the certainty that Hummel won't return this season. He will have surgery when the swelling subsides and he has the necessary range of motion. Rehabilitation for torn ACLs is four to six months. So if Hummel has surgery in early April, the worst case scenario is he's back in time for the start of practice next season.
“The more serious you are about rehab, the better position you put yourself in,” Painter said. “Guys who want to get back have to be diligent, do the little things, stay on top of it, listen to the trainers and doctors. Rob is a very gung-ho guy. He's serious about basketball. He'll probably be somebody we'll have to hold back because he'll want to do everything, and beyond.”
Hummel will still be with the team for practices and games. His role, Painter said, will be more of a coach.
“It's important for him to be around our team as much as possible, and he will be. He'll go through a period where he'll feel sorry for himself. It's hard, but you can't change anything. It stinks. He's got to work his way through this and we have to be there for him. He has to get ready for next year.”
Readiness now centers on Michigan State at Mackey Arena. The Boilers (24-3) beat the Spartans (21-7) in East Lansing earlier this month, but that guarantees nothing now.
“We have to keep them off the glass, we have to rebound and we have to keep them out of transition,” Painter said. “If we do those things, we have a chance to win. If we don't, we won't have a chance.”
The Boilers lead the Big Ten with a 12-3 record, just ahead of Ohio State (12-4) and Michigan State (11-4). They will win their first Big Ten title since 1996 by beating the Spartans, Indiana and Penn State in the next week.
Painter has no time for all the gloom-and-doom talk about lost opportunity, including a NCAA tourney top seed, with Hummel gone.
“That's how we got into a rut when we lost three in a row,” Painter said. “We were thinking too much about outside stuff rather than what is in front of us, and what's in front of us is a game with Michigan State. We have to be ready to battle. That's all we're worried about, and we'd be worried about that even if we had Rob.
“You can talk about going to a Final Four or a Sweet 16. Every team in the NCAA Tournament is good. You have to have a special team to advance. We'll deal with the NCAA when we get there. We try to keep the focus on Michigan State and game plan to win.”
Up nextTipoff: Michigan State at Purdue, 4 p.m. Sunday
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