OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - No one is more excited about Purdue's NCAA tournament game against Saint Mary's than Robbie Hummel.
The Boilermakers' star is right back where he wants to be after missing the tournament the past two years because of two anterior cruciate ligament tears in his right knee.
No. 10-seeded Purdue (21-12) meets the No. 7 Gaels (27-5) on Friday in the Midwest Regional. Hummel is looking for a big finish to his career after returning to average 16.7 points and 7.1 rebounds this season while making first-team all-Big Ten.
"Sitting out the last two years, it's been frustrating," Hummel said Thursday. "It's made this time all the more special for me. When you miss something like that - where you've grown up watching the tournament and always wanting to play in it - it's disappointing to not be with your team."
Hummel and the Boilermakers are playing some of their best ball lately. The 6-foot-8 senior forward scored better than 21 points per game last month and the Boilermakers won six of eight before losing to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals.
"He's had a long road and didn't get into rhythm shooting the basketball until February," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "You see all his hard work paying off and you feel good about him. He deserves to have this opportunity."
Hummel and his teammates will be facing a motivated Saint Mary's team. The Gaels reached the round of 16 two years ago but had to settle for an NIT bid last season.
"Our guys took that pretty hard," coach Randy Bennett said.
The Gaels, who swept the West Coast Conference regular-season and tournament titles, are among only five teams to have won at least 25 games each of the last five years. They still have seven players from the 2009-10 team that put the school on the college basketball map.
"I think that experience will definitely help us down the stretch," senior forward Rob Jones said. "We need leadership, and also when it comes down to a tight game, we will have a lot of confidence in ourselves."
Purdue and Saint Mary's have never met. The Gaels, in fact, haven't played an opponent from the Big Ten since 1976.
Hummel earned all-Big Ten honors his freshman and sophomore seasons and was averaging 15.7 points and 6.9 rebounds as a junior before he tore his ACL the first time on Feb. 24, 2010. Purdue still made it to the regional semifinals.
The Boilermakers figured to be a national-title contender in 2010-11, but Hummel tore the ACL again and missed the entire season.
Bennett gushed at his news conference Thursday when Hummel's name was brought up.
"First of all, he's a legend," Bennett said. "He must have a big heart. I don't know him that well. I just watch him compete. For him to come back and get his team back in the NCAA tournament ... he's got what you want and what it takes to be a special guy. I've heard about him for years and to finally see him up close is kind of fun, until tomorrow."
There were times earlier this season when Hummel let doubts creep into his mind about whether he would be as effective as he used to be.
"Will I be able to play at a high level again? Will I be able to just shoot the ball?" he said. "There were times that I was asking myself if I'll be on the court, or will our team be in (the NCAA tournament)?"
Hummel scored a season-high 29 points against Nebraska on Feb. 22, three nights after grabbing a season-high 15 rebounds against Michigan State.
There was no doubt Hummel had made it all the way back.
"Most guys will quit," Purdue point guard Lewis Jackson said. "You had to guess if he's going to be the same player, or does he want to get back out there? When I'm tired, if I'm nicked up, I look at what he's been through and tell myself you need to be out there giving your heart just because he's out there giving his, too."