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Ben Smith

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Associated Press photos
Purdue’s Robbie Hummel, blocking Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger in the second round of the Big Ten tournament, will play his first NCAA tournament game in three years Friday.

One returns to dance; other can only watch

Indiana guard Verdell Jones III gets carried off the court by his teammates after an injury against Penn State in the first round of the Big Ten Conference tournament.
Associated Press
Indiana’s Verdell Jones III will miss the rest of his senior season after tearing his ACL.

– The one you are hurting for this week was on crutches the other day, watching the best of times leave the station without him. Verdell Jones III suffered through 6-25, 10-21 and 12-20 to get to 25-8 and the Big Dance at Indiana, and now he and his wrecked knee sit alone as the band plays and the Dancers dance. March Madness, indeed.

And the one you are cheering for, as the best three weekends in sports commence?

He’s the one you’re used to seeing on crutches.

He’s the one who wrecked his knee, too, up at Minnesota a couple years ago, and then wrecked it again on the second day of practice the next October. Now Robbie Hummel will get one more March moment, and if you’ve got a soul you’re on your feet for the man. No one will appreciate it more when Purdue, an undervalued 10 seed, takes the floor against Saint Mary’s out in Omaha, Neb., on Friday night.

Jones of Indiana, Hummel of Purdue: These are the bookends for this year’s March volume, as Indiana and Purdue head for the NCAA tournament in the same year for the first time since 2008. These are the yin and yang of fortune in a week when the yin and yang of fortunes is the dominant meme.

Jones, a senior guard who had known nothing but loss and loss and yet more loss in Indiana’s three seasons in the wilderness, went down without being touched in the blowout Big Ten tournament win over Penn State last Thursday. He was helped off the floor, and showed up the next day in sweats, with crutches as an accessory.

The verdict: A torn ACL. Career over, after 1,347 points and 103 starts, most of them losses until this magical season. Career over, just when it was getting good.

“Heartbreaking news,” IU coach Tom Crean said in a statement, and no hyperbole there.

“Having a good player like Verdell not being able to play for us, it’s pretty difficult,” agreed Jordan Hulls, 48 hours before the Hoosiers landed a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament – something that, back in November, would have been unfathomable.

So, too, the fact that, after everything, Jones will miss it all. We hear every year this week how much it means to hear your name called out on Selection Sunday, see it in the way a Belmont or Norfolk State or Davidson celebrates when their school pops up somewhere in the bracket. But you have to think no one could articulate that better this time around than Verdell Jones III – unless it’s Robbie Hummel.

Purdue might have been dissed a bit by the committee, but Hummel likely didn’t care much. He got through an entire season without blowing some hinge or other, averaging 16.3 points and 7.1 rebounds in 32 minutes per game. And now – for the first time in three years, and for one final time – he’ll play in the NCAA tournament.

“We’re just happy to be in the tournament,” he said Sunday, no doubt with a tad more feeling than most.

Happy, after all, probably doesn’t touch it. Because the flip side of it, Verdell Jones III is seeing now.

Jones of Indiana. Hummel of Purdue.

One man watched March from crutches the last two years, and because of that knows how much it means now that it’s March again.

One man watches from crutches now, and because of that knows the same thing.

Jones of Indiana. Hummel of Purdue.

Maybe you call ’em this: Dance partners.

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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