HARTFORD — It was around this time last year that Matt Haarms — or his hair, more specifically — was taking off as a viral sensation.
Purdue’s 7-foot-3 center was thrust into the spotlight in the NCAA Tournament when senior center Isaac Haas went down with a broken elbow. He filled in suitably, as the Boilermakers advanced to the Sweet 16, but he gained more attention for his blonde flow, which he was constantly fixing to keep out of his eyes.
A year later, with that big-game experience and another season under his belt, Haarms is hoping to let his play — not hair — take over.
“I had to prove to people I was more than just a haircut, which I feel like I’ve done this year,” Haarms said Friday at XL Center, where No. 3 Purdue will meet No. 6 Villanova in the South Region’s second round Saturday night.
The Netherlands native was sharp Thursday night in the Boilermakers’ win over Old Dominion, shooting 5-of-6 from the field and tallying 13 points and four rebounds. He is averaging 9.2 points and 5.3 rebounds on the season, nearly doubling his totals from a year ago.
The big man’s presence inside could be key against Villanova, with the defending national champs’ tallest player measuring in at 6-foot-9 in sophomore forward Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. They also have a pair of 6-foot-8 starters in Eric Paschall and Saddiq Bey, but the Wildcats were outrebounded Thursday in their first-round win against Saint Mary’s.
“We’re still learning how to deal with guys with that much height,” Villanova senior guard Phil Booth said. “Haarms bring a lot of skill to it as well. He’ll present some challenges.”
In his return to the NCAA Tournament, Haarms is trying to tap into all the advice that Haas gave him last year once he was sidelined.
“Those games were so big, being in the spotlight a little bit, getting a little bit of attention for it, going viral a little bit,” Haarms said. “Then seeing the leadership that Isaac gave me, how I could do that this year, how I could be talking to our younger guys — that’s something I really learned from that.”
The videos of Haarms fixing his hair that went viral last year have calmed down, though the Twitter account “Matt Haarms Hair’’ remains active.
“I still have no clue who runs that,” Haarms said.