At 7 feet tall and 280 pounds, Purdue freshman A.J. Hammons could be the biggest obstacle standing between Penn State and its first win of the Big Ten season.
The Nittany Lions will play the second of a four-game string against unranked teams when they take on the Boilermakers at 7 p.m. Tuesday.
Head coach Patrick Chambers’ group lost in Iowa on Thursday and will travel to Nebraska on Saturday before hosting the Hawkeyes on Valentine’s Day.
After that stretch, the Lions will face No. 3 Michigan twice in 10 days with a date at once-ranked Illinois sandwiched in between. Then they finish at No. 18 Minnesota, at Northwestern and a final home stand against Wisconsin.
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So a Purdue (11-11, 4-5 Big Ten) squad that has lost its last two games could be a good chance for Penn State to end its nine-game skid. But then, there’s still that one big hurdle in the middle.
“I feel like he doesn’t play like a freshman,” Chambers said of Hammons. “He has really good hands, really soft touch, good feet and is a really good passer.
“He did get 30 (points) against Indiana so he’s very capable of scoring the basketball but he’ll also share it.”
Hammons, who leads his team in scoring (13.2), rebounds (7.8) and blocks (2.9) in conference play, put up 30 points while making 10-of-14 from the field and 10-of-12 from the foul line against then-No. 3 Indiana. He did that even though his team suffered its worst home loss in history 97-60.
He followed that performance with a 19-point 13-rebound performance in a loss to Northwestern.
“He’s a talented freshman,” Chambers said. “As a team we have to play better versus Hammons. It’s not just one guy … it’s not Sasa (Borovnjak), it’s not Jon (Graham).
“Yeah they have to do their work … but as a team we have to do the best job we can and try to stay out of foul trouble.”
Penn State (8-13, 0-9 Big Ten) has struggled at times against size and girth this season. They have also sent opponents to the free throw line at an alarming rate.
They have been outscored from the line in every conference game and on average are being outscored 19-12 from the stripe. Iowa went 31-of-39 from the foul line in Penn State’s last contest.
“Thirty-nine free throws — that hurts,” Chambers said. “We have to do a better job of playing harder and smarter without fouling.”
Hammons will undoubtedly be a load to handle down low, but one remedy might be the aggressive pick-and-roll play of D.J. Newbill and Jermaine Marshall.
“We definitely want to stay aggressive against (big men),” Newbill said. “He’s a good big. I’ve been watching him play lately.”
Newbill, Penn State’s leading scorer at 15.7 per game for sixth in the Big Ten, said his team will stick to its usual plan of dumping the ball down to Borovnjak, but that they’ll also challenge Hammons on offensive.
“(Get him in) Pick-and-rolls to try and get him moving a little bit,” Newbill said. “I think we’ll try to attack him.”
Marshall, who has led the team over the last three home games with 21 points per contest, said pick-and-roll opportunities could provide offense from himself and Newbill or his teammates.
“Coach talks about getting downhill, just trying to get into the paint,” Marshall said. “Once you get into the paint, the defense has to make rotations so you’re looking for big guys to step up. (It’s) a way to get D.J. and me open looks or make plays for our teammates.”
The Nittany Lions are still looking for a third scorer to help Marshall and Newbill, the conference’s second-highest scoring duo behind Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. at Michigan.
Purdue won the first meeting between the schools 60-42 in West Lafayatte, holding both Newbill and Marshall to single digits (nine and eight points, respectively).
Penn State shot just 26 percent from the field in the game with Newbill and Marshall shooting a combined 6-for-25. Freshman Brandon Taylor led with 11 points, but has been struggling with his shot of late. Hammons scored 12 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in the meeting. Ronnie Johnson led all scorers with 13 points.
Penn State should enter the game fresh after getting the weekend off from conference play. Coaches went on the road to recruit, while players got time to recuperate from the ravages of the Big Ten play.