It's not easy for freshmen in college basketball, especially in the Big Ten, as this season's shown for both Purdue and Iowa.
So when the Boilermakers and Hawkeyes meet up at 3:30 p.m. Sunday in Mackey Arena, it might be a matter of whose rookies are in the best place right now that will determine the game's result.
Barring any changes to either team's usual starting five, six true freshmen will start in the meeting between the Boilermakers and Hawkeyes, the latter coming in at 13-6, 2-4 in the Big Ten, and still harboring NCAA Tournament hopes.
Iowa's enjoying a solid season while starting three true freshmen, a group of recruits highlighted coming in by center Adam Woodbury, a pivotal recruiting win for Coach Fran McCaffery.
Woodbury has started every game this season. But he's struggled in Big Ten play, picking up three fouls and turning the ball over three times in just seven minutes in a loss at Ohio State most recently. Foul trouble has been a consistent issue for the 7-foot-1 center, who is shooting just 36 percent in Big Ten games.
Meanwhile, Purdue, too, is starting three rookies, and coming off what was really the first poor game of what's otherwise been an excellent freshman season for center A.J. Hammons. Hammons finished with just two points and two rebounds in Purdue's loss at No. 2 Michigan.
"Some stuff has been going on, and I'm just trying to push through it," Hammons said Saturday.
The 7-footer is healthy, but it has been a long season to date, particularly when you take into account the mental grind thrown at rookies playing major roles immediately, on top of the physical toll. There's the dreaded freshman "wall" that's sometimes mentioned.
"You're always going to hit that wall at some point in the season," guard Terone Johnson said. "And I feel like our guys have all kind of hit it, most of them already, earlier in the season. Especially when they weren't used to losing games and going through two practices a day. Stamina-wise, it wears on you."
Like Hammons, point guard Ronnie Johnson was thrown right into a prominent role from Day 1 at Purdue.
"You just have to go out and hold your own," the freshman said, "and you have to know that you're playing against a lot of grown men and you just have to compete.
"(The grind) is more mental to me. That's pretty much the game. You have to be smart with everything that you do. If you make mental mistakes, it can cost you a game."
After his best stretch of basketball this season during Purdue's three-game winning streak, the point guard was 2-of-10 with three turnovers against the Wolverines.
Purdue will need both its freshmen to rebound against the Hawkeyes, especially Hammons.
"It's one of those things where it's time to play a basketball game," Coach Matt Painter said. "I promise you there are people on Michigan's team who are hurt or sick. You have to just lay it on the line. We have to do a better job of getting our guys ready to play."
Fellow freshman Rapheal Davis has played very well for Purdue lately and has solidified a starting position for himself, but he wasn't thrown right into the same sort of role as his classmates. He says having the chance to ease into the playing time he's getting now, affording him a chance to observe veterans earlier in the season, has benefited him.
He understands, though, the grind Hammons and Ronnie Johnson have endured.
"A.J. might going through (some struggles) right now," Davis said. "There's a lot of pressure on him, and he's getting used to being one of the main guys and the center of attention. He'll be all right. And Ronnie's done pretty well. He's a good leader, a vocal leader."
F: D.J. Byrd
C: A.J. Hammons
G: Mike Gesell (6-1, 185, Fr.)
G: Anthony Clemmons (6-1, 192, Fr.)
G: Roy Devyn Marble (6-6, 194, Jr.)
F: Aaron White (6-8, 219, So.)
C: Adam Woodbury (7-1, 235, Fr.)
All four of Iowa's Big Ten losses have come to ranked teams and three of them were pretty competitive. Indiana won by just four in Iowa City, while Michigan State won by only three. Ohio State beat Iowa by nine in Columbus after letting a huge lead slip. ... Iowa has shown a fighter's spirit lately, withstanding a Wisconsin run to hang on to beat the Badgers in Iowa City, then rallying from nearly 25 down in the second half to get within four at Ohio State with a minute-and-a-half left. ... Marble leads Iowa in scoring at 14.5 per game, with White not far behind at 13.5. Marble is shooting only 30 percent, though, during the Big Ten season. ... Forward Melsahn Basabe, one of Iowa's top players the past two seasons, now comes off the bench to average seven points and 4.1 rebounds. "That speaks volumes about their talent," Painter said. ... Iowa's being outrebounded in league games and shooting just 27 percent from three in conference games. ... Freshman forward Patrick Ingram was Ronnie Johnson's high school teammate at North Central and a fellow Indiana All-Star. "He's my best friend, like a brother to me," Ronnie Johnson said.
Game time: 3:30 p.m.
Radio: Purdue Sports Network (95.7 FM locally)
Internet: GoldandBlack.com subscribers can follow along live with our in-game blog, "Game Day Live."
Things to think about
1. How will Hammons respond to the Michigan game? Not to make too big a deal out of this, but there's no overstating his importance for the Boilermakers, who'll be hard-pressed to beat good teams if he's not productive.
2. Purdue is the more physical team on the interior in this game. It needs to take advantage, win the boards and generate post offense, all of that stuff going hand-in-hand with the point above.
3. Like Purdue, the Hawkeyes run with a true freshman point guard in Clemmons. The Boilermakers will look to apply pressure and throw him off his game.
4. Iowa has shot the ball poorly from the perimeter from this season, at just 30 percent from three-point range, but has a number of players who've shown in the past they can make shots. It wouldn't be unprecedented for a struggling shooting team to suddenly find its rhythm against the Boilermakers.
GoldandBlack.com Prediction: The Hawkeyes are trending upward ever so slightly and seem to have their deepest and most talented team under McCaffery. Purdue's defense against their guards will be particularly important. But if the Boilermakers can regain their presence in the paint at both ends of the floor, we like their chances to rebound from the Michigan loss, though it won't be easy.
Purdue 70, Iowa 66
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