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February 27, 2008WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. ? Purdue coach Matt Painter has been recruiting long enough to know the best way to avoid getting jilted.
"Recruiting's very similar to dating," Painter said. "We all want to recruit and date the same people, but can you get them? You have to keep that in mind, and you have to be objective about that. A lot of people aren't objective."
Painter's pragmatic approach kept the Boilermakers from seriously pursuing home-state products Greg Oden and Mike Conley Jr., who went on to lead Ohio State to an NCAA Tournament runner-up finish last season. Purdue's coaching staff instead focused its energy toward the next year's recruiting class, which featured prospects the Boilermakers had a better chance of signing.
That strategy has paid off better than anyone could have reasonably expected.
Purdue (21-6 overall, 12-2 in the Big Ten) enters Wednesday's game with Minnesota needing a victory to move into a three-way tie with Indiana and Wisconsin for first place in the Big Ten standings. The Boilermakers are contending for a conference title while relying heavily on the four freshmen who make up the Boilermakers' sixth-ranked recruiting class.
Former AAU teammates E'Twaun Moore (11.9 points per game), Robbie Hummel (11.5) and Scott Martin (8.8) are three of Purdue's four leading scorers. JaJuan Johnson rounds out the freshman class and has a team-high 29 blocks.
All four committed to Purdue at a time when the Boilermakers were coming off a two-year stretch in which they'd lost nearly two-thirds of their games.
"I knew they'd had losing seasons," Moore said, "but that made me want to come and help turn the program around."
The turnaround started before they even arrived.
Last season, Purdue went 22-12 and earned its first NCAA Tournament berth since 2003 in Painter's second year as coach. This freshman class has helped the Boilermakers build on that momentum even after losing their two leading scorers (Carl Landry and David Teague) from last season.
Hummel and Moore are Purdue's top two players in scoring, rebounding and assists. Martin has developed into one of the Boilermakers' top players off the bench despite dealing with injuries to his back and both ankles. Johnson, the tallest player on Purdue's roster, gives the Boilers a 6-foot-10 post presence.
The freshmen ? who live together in a two-bedroom suite ? have surprised everyone but themselves.
"We had high expectations coming in just because of the fact we'd never really lost," Hummel said. "If you look at us, everyone's really won throughout our careers. (In AAU) it seemed like we won every tournament we played, or were at least in the finals."
Hummel, Moore and Martin said Purdue was one of the first schools to start pursuing them. Painter's first recruiting trip as a Purdue assistant under Gene Keady was to visit Moore, then a freshman at East Chicago (Ind.) High School.
"It made no sense for us to recruit Greg Oden and Mike Conley because we weren't going to get them," Painter said. "That's a hard pill to swallow, but if you spend 50 percent of your time trying to get them and you come in third place for those guys, now your other classes are going to suffer. ? You have to be smart. If you give all your attention to two or three guys and don't get any of them, not only are you not getting those guys but you probably don't put much attention to the class behind them.
"What we did was we put a lot of our attention to the younger guys, and we just took a hit early on."
Painter had reason to feel confident he could land the four freshmen who ended up signing with Purdue. Each attended high school within 100 miles of Purdue's campus. Moore, Hummel and Martin also were familiar with one another after playing together on the SYF Players, an Indiana-based AAU program that also produced Notre Dame forward Luke Harangody.
But they never considered themselves a package deal.
"It fell into place, really," Martin said. "We really didn't discuss it or anything like that. It just happened to be the best situation for everyone."
They considered it the best situation because they believed in the honesty of Painter's sales pitch. Painter said he offered each of them the opportunity to contribute early without promising anyone a starting position or a certain number of minutes.
"He's always been 100 percent real with me," Moore said. "He never just said what I wanted to hear. He told me the good and negative things."
Whether they impacted one another's decisions, these four first-year players certainly have benefited from being part of such a large freshman class.
Hummel and Martin have known each other since first grade and were teammates at Valparaiso (Ind.) High School. Hummel has played on an AAU team with Moore since his sophomore year in high school.
"Great camaraderie is unusual in sports today because we're such a me-first society," SYF Players coach Wayne Brumm said. "When a kid who cares about his teammates finds another kid who cares about his teammates who finds another kid who cares about his teammates ? and they're all good players ? it's not surprising they would bond together."
Their unselfishness is obvious on the court. Hummel ranks second and Moore is third on the team in assists. And after spending the early part of the season in the starting lineup, Martin and Johnson have smoothly handled a move to the bench. The four new players also have blended well enough with the rest of the team to prevent any freshman or upperclassman cliques from forming.
"They've adjusted to everything," said sophomore guard Chris Kramer, who leads Purdue with 2.9 assists per game. "They know how Coach Painter's system is, when they can get shots and when they can't. They really adjusted well, and their successful adjustment to the system is a key to our success as a team.
"I think our chemistry is one of the best in the country, to be honest."
The chemistry wasn't instant. Purdue didn't look like an NCAA Tournament team in December when back-to-back losses to Wofford and Iowa State dropped its record to 7-4. But the Boilermakers heated up once the freshmen adjusted to the college game, just in time for the start of the Big Ten schedule. The ability of this freshman class to deal with adversity and gradually overcome it reveals the character that led to them signing with Purdue in the first place. These freshmen could have chosen to fortify a program that already had developed into a national title contender, but they instead chose to help lead a home-state school back to national prominence.
"It's easy to go someplace that's always winning championships," Brumm said. "It's the hard route to go someplace where everybody else looks at it like, 'They're bad.' It takes somebody with vision and courage to say, 'Hey, you know what? I can do this.'
"My goodness, they're doing it."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.