By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
WEST LAFAYETTE -- Purdue got back on track in time for perhaps its most difficult stretch of the season.
Purdue lost its first two Big Ten games while facing injuries to key players Robbie Hummel and Chris Kramer. The 18th-ranked Boilermakers have since won three in a row, but they will play four of their next five in the road, starting Thursday at No. 21 Minnesota.
"We've had some tough games, and obviously, trying to get everybody healthy, trying to get better in practice without everybody practicing is difficult because you don't have all your pieces," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "We've done a good job the last three games of being able to get wins and make the plays late in the game necessary."
Hummel has averaged 13.3 points and 7.3 rebounds since returning from a back injury that kept him out of a loss to Penn State, and the Boilermakers (14-4, 3-2 Big Ten) have won all three games. The conference's preseason player of the year is the team's No. 2 scorer.
Kramer, who also missed the Penn State game, has provided his usual hustle and defensive dominance since he returned from his sprained left foot.
The Boilermakers played especially well in Sunday's 75-53 win over Iowa, when Purdue shot 49 percent and made 10-of-15 3-pointers. Painter believes the team will need similar performances to be successful during the upcoming five games.
"Every game is going to be tough, no matter who you're playing and where you're playing," Painter said.
The Boilermakers follow their game at Minnesota with a trip to Wisconsin, then they will return home to play Michigan before playing at Ohio State and No. 25 Illinois.
First, they must deal with a rejuvenated Minnesota squad. The Golden Gophers (16-2, 4-2) were picked to finish fifth in the preseason media poll, but are in second place. Lawrence Westbrook, who leads Minnesota with 14.1 points a game, is one of 11 players who average at least 11 minutes per contest.
"They play hard, they wear you down, they have some interchangeable parts," Painter said.
"We know Minnesota's a tough team, a physical team," Purdue guard Keaton Grant said.
One reason Painter is optimistic is Grant's improved play. The junior guard scored 12 points on 4-for-5 3-point shooting against Iowa after struggling from long range for most of the season.
"I think he is a very good shooter when he gets his feet under him and he is set, when we can get him some clean looks at the basket," Painter said. "It's great to see him knock down some shots. Hopefully, that confidence keeps climbing."
Purdue's JaJuan Johnson has been especially effective in conference play. The 6-10 sophomore is averaging 13 points and 8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game against Big Ten opponents. Sophomore E'Twaun Moore leads the Boilermakers with 13.9 points a game and ranks second on the team in assists.
With everyone healthy, the Boilermakers hope to stay that way and live up to their billing as conference favorites. Painter said he expected many Big Ten teams would knock each other off along the way, so he didn't worry too much when the Boilermakers dropped the games against Illinois and Penn State.
"Really, going 0-2 is not that big a deal because of what happened," he said. "You can't control injuries. ... What you can control is your attitude and how you approach things. We've just got to stay positive and keep working hard."