WEST LAFAYETTE – So here was Cody Zeller turning in the lane, and school was in, suddenly. Zeller leaned into Purdue freshman A.J. Hammons. He flipped up a soft righty hook shot. It chattered on the rim briefly and then dropped in.
Except, down at the other end, it was Hammons who had the ball now.
And now, with Zeller on his hip, he shoulder faked right, then shoulder faked left.
And now he whirled, lifted an equally soft jumper, watched it nestle obediently.
No. 3 Indiana schooled its ancient rival Wednesday in every way you can school a team, pummeling the Boilermakers 97-60. It was the Hoosiers’ biggest margin of victory ever in West Lafayette; the previous high was 36 points in 1954, or 13 years before Mackey Arena was built.
But if there was any bright spot at all for the home side on an exceedingly dark night, it was Hammons, the 7-foot, 280-pounder from Carmel – who, going head-to-head with Indiana’s celebrated sophomore center, dropped a career-high 30 points, took five rebounds and blocked five shots.
It was a scintillating coming-out party on a night definitely not conducive to partying for the Mackey Arena faithful, who had little opportunity to raise the usual thunder except when Hammons was on the floor. And it was exactly the sort of rise-to-the-occasion moment Purdue coach Matt Painter said this week he hoped to see in the head-to-head battle with Zeller.
It was certainly a glimpse into the potential Painter saw when he recruited him, and he wasn’t the only one. Hammons came out of Oak Hill Academy as the No. 77 overall recruit and the No. 19 center according to Rivals.com, and he was ranked the No. 11 prospect in his class in Indiana by ESPN.com.
He came into Wednesday averaging 9.7 points and 6.3 rebounds. He exited with a much higher esteem.
I was happy to see him running the court the way he was, Purdue forward Travis Carroll said. That’s something he really improved on this game. I think he probably got five or six dunks.
It wasn’t nearly enough, this night. But for Hammons personally, it was a start.