CHICAGO ? Purdue coach Matt Painter isn't worried about the preseason hype surrounding his program going to the heads of his players. Painter is too busy worrying about his players' actual heads.
Last week, near the end of a practice, Purdue's Robbie Hummel ? who was voted the Big Ten's preseason player of the year ? was part of a group of players who lost what they call a "competitive" drill. Their punishment was simple: run sprints. If everyone doesn't finish in a certain time, everyone runs again.
An exhausted Hummel, finding himself in danger of going over the time limit, dove headfirst across the finish line. The left side of his noggin scrapped across the hardwood before his body came to a stop. He emerged with two floor burns on his face, one next to his left eye and the other above it.
"Coach Painter told me never to do that again," Hummel said Sunday at Big Ten media day as a broad grin spread over a face that looked as if it had been in a boxing match the previous night.
So, did Hummel make it in time? Was the dive all worth it?
"I think so because we didn't have to run again," he said with a laugh.
It's that kind of hustle that typifies what the tight-knit Boilermakers, who return all five starters, are all about. Picked to win the Big Ten by a 22-member panel of the media, they have a large amount of talent ? Hummel was part of a 2007 recruiting class that included four top-100 prospects. But it's their scrappiness and chemistry that sets them apart. Even their most well-known player doesn't want to be responsible for a little extra running.
"It's a good experience to be chosen first in the league and to have the preseason player of the year, but it's also easy to keep the same mentality as last season," said junior guard Chris Kramer, the Big Ten's Defensive Player of the Year last season. "We didn't reach any of our goals. We didn't win the Big Ten. We didn't advance very far in the NCAA tournament. That keeps us hungry."
Kramer said a trip to Australia in August has helped maintain that hunger. The Boilermakers arrived Down Under after a season that included a second-place finish in the league, a trip to the second round of the NCAA tournament and 25 wins. But they returned home from Australia with a 2-3 record in exhibition games and a 1-3 mark against the teams from Australia's top pro league.
Purdue might look upon those butt-kickings fondly by this time next year. Sophomore guard E'Twaun Moore emerged with a much-improved offensive game, racking up 27 points per game in Australia.
"E'Twaun is definitely going to have a breakout year," Kramer said.
Sophomore big man JaJuan Johnson also had some bright moments. Johnson has the size and athleticism to give Purdue an inside force they previously lacked. He could elevate the Boilermakers into serious Final Four contenders.
"JaJuan is going to be a big surprise," Moore said. "He's a lot stronger than people expect."
Purdue's non-conference schedule is much stronger than last season's and should give the rest of the nation an idea of whether the Boilermakers really belong among the elite. The Boilermakers are one of the four hosts in the Preseason NIT, and also play host to Duke in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Purdue has a neutral-court matchup with Davidson in the John Wooden Tradition on Dec. 20 in Anaheim, which might be the matchup Kramer is most anticipating. Kramer's hungry for the chance to face Davidson star Stephen Curry, who carried the Wildcats to the Elite Eight last season.
"It will be a huge challenge to try and shut him down," Kramer said. "Nobody has really been able to do it yet, so if you don't that's fine. But I want to be that one guy who has."
Spoken like someone trying to get into an opponent's head.