Purdue guard Kenneth Lowe has had an ice pack on his left shoulder seemingly for the entire last month. He straps one on before and after practice, even wore one under his warmup jacket to a news conference Friday after the Boilermakers had advanced to Sunday's second-round game in the NCAA tournament's South Region.
Lowe was voted the best defensive player in the Big Ten this season as a junior. And how well the shoulder that kept him out of action for three-plus games holds up is critical for the No. 9 seeded Boilermakers, because Lowe figures to be the principal pest to all-American guard T.J. Ford of top-seeded Texas.
"I try to keep the soreness out, but don't really think about it because this is not the time to think about myself," Lowe said. "As long as I can move, I'm playing."
Lowe has not lost any fear since returning for the first time in Purdue's loss to Michigan State in the league tournament eight days ago. Late the first half of the victory over LSU in the first round here Friday, Lowe drove hard to the basket and fell so awkwardly that the team thought he might have suffered another separation.
He had not and returned in the second half. But his teammates, especially backup Melvin Buckley, who hit 5 of 6 three-point shots, played well enough to keep LSU in check that Lowe needed to play just 22 minutes. Freshman Buckley's 20 points were more than twice his previous high for Purdue, whose bench outscored LSU's by 27 points.
Lowe, who missed last season recovering from surgery on his right shoulder, and backcourt mates Willie Deane and Brandon McKnight have been among the major reasons the Boilermakers earned their way back to the NCAA tournament after a two-year absence.
Deane leads the team in scoring (18 per game) and steals, is second in rebounding (5.1) and behind only McKnight in assists. Lowe is second in scoring (11.7) and steals and protects the ball nearly as well as McKnight. And the 6-foot-3, 197-pound Lowe is a tenacious defender.
"He brings a lot of energy and long arms," Purdue Coach Gene Keady said. "Plus he's got great instincts. And his [awareness] is as good as anyone I've ever had. He does a good job of kind of energizing everyone else. He's kind of the heart and soul of our group."
Keady was coy about who would check Ford, suggesting McKnight might start on him first. Lowe clearly is eager for a try.
"Of course, I want to guard the player that's the key to every team," Lowe said. "Why wouldn't you want to play against the best player in the country?"
Ford is exceptional for so many reasons, among them the ability to change speeds without diminishing his effectiveness.
"Once he moves outside the speed limit," Texas Coach Rick Barnes said, "he still has great vision."
Added Keady: "It looks like teams are going to stop him at the top of the circle, and all of a sudden he's got in the hole on you."
Without sounding cocky, Ford said it mattered little which Boilermaker checks him.
"I'll still get our team in the offense," he said. "I'll still try to get the ball inside, get open looks."
The Purdue players have tried to magnify all slights, real or imagined, here. And Lowe seemed to take some offense to Ford saying he could be effective regardless of the Boilermaker defender.
"I don't worry about what he says," Lowe snapped.