INDIANAPOLIS — When the lists get made of the most important players in this year's NCAA tournament, you'll see Michigan State's Denzel Valentine, you'll see Oklahoma's Buddy Hield.
One name you might not see is Purdue's A.J. Hammons, but he will most certainly be one of the most important players this March.
The Boilermakers' All-Big Ten First Team seven-footer has already made plenty of noise since the calendar turned to the year's maddest month, and he had one of his best games of the season in Purdue's win over Michigan in Saturday's Big Ten Tournament semifinal. Hammons led the Boilers to a berth in the conference tournament title game with 27 points and 10 rebounds, displaying an eye-popping variety of post moves and even coming up with a highlight-reel shot block. It was Hammons who put the team on his back when Michigan shrunk a big lead down to just six late in the second half, scoring nine straight points for Purdue to halt the Wolverines' advances.
Hammons deserved his spot on the All-Big Ten First Team just as much as Valentine or Indiana's Yogi Ferrell, and he will surely make a big impact on the Big Dance.
How exactly? Well, while Hammons is certainly not the only Boiler big man — he along with fellow seven-footer Isaac Haas and the mere 6-foot-9 Caleb Swanigan make up the "skyline" frontcourt — he's the best and the perfect example of how a Purdue team clicking on all cylinders can wreak havoc on just about any NCAA tournament foe.
Let head coach Matt Painter explain.
"That's the game plan every game. We're going to try to get the ball inside," Painter said. "So we're trying to get him the basketball as much as we can, trying to get A.J. in the game. Our other guys have really done a good job of understanding that this doesn't, you know, dismiss their abilities to be players or scorers. But, you know, they have to have the right of first refusal. You know, you're going shoot a high percentage from five to six feet (away from the basket). You're going to get to the free throw line. And (Hammons and Haas) both shoot 70 percent. And you're going to get the other team in foul trouble. There's so many positives to getting the ball to good low post players.
"At times I think some of our guys it takes away from them in their minds. Now they're starting to realize how it's beneficial. But it's also beneficial because those guys are now doing a better job of passing once they are getting doubled."
Hammons has the ability to dominate and often does. He's averaged 16.1 points per game in 20 games against Big Ten opponents this season, scoring in double figures in all but one of those games and scoring more than 20 points three times. He can take on just about anyone in the paint, has great touch around the basket and — as he described himself Saturday — is a great shot-blocker.
But even if Hammons isn't scoring, he can affect the game. Just ask John Beilein, whose Michigan Wolverines were torched by Purdue Saturday but also in an early January game in West Lafayette, when the Wolverines' objective was to shut Hammons down.
"He's an elite player. And I've been in this league for a while," Beilein said. "He's a versatile big man because he can pass. You saw him shoot the 15 footers today as well. And they run action where he passes. And then he's really got some crafty stuff in the post. We tried to double him at Purdue. And it was a catastrophe when we doubled him. He just found open people."
That there is the key, as Hammons' mere presence makes Purdue a better team and a dangerous one. If Hammons doesn't pile up the points himself, he'll let the Boilers' cadre of shot-making guards do it. In Friday's walloping of Illinois, Hammons scored just 10 points, but Purdue as a team hit 13 3-pointers.
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And the same goes for guards scoring inside, too. Saturday, Purdue's 9-0 burst to open the second half determined the outcome of the game, both coaches agreed. The first three baskets were scored by guards. Hammons, Swanigan and Haas are so big that they create driving lanes for the smaller guys on the team.
Purdue buried Michigan in points in the paint, 44-28, and though a lot of damage was done by the big men, it wasn't just them.
"(Hammons) and Swanigan," Painter said. "When Swanigan gets down there and gets physical and posts strong, that's really hard on face up (power forwards). They've got to do a lot of work to get in front of him. They've got to do a lot of work, for Hammons and Haas, to get around them. So, if our guards can beat their initial defender, whether that's in transition or bust them on a closeout, now they can get to the rim. That back line defense is either non existent or it's late."
Purdue and the way it's playing of late, with wins in its last five games, looks like it could be a team destined for a long NCAA tournament run. It can make an even grander statement with a win in Sunday's conference tournament championship game against Michigan State.
And if the Boilers run all the way through the alliterative rounds of the Big Dance, look no further than the big man, Hammons, as the one who fueled their run.