WEST LAFAYETTE — Two pressing questions surrounding the Purdue men’s basketball team hours before its season opener Wednesday at Mackey Arena against Green Bay:
• The availability of junior point guard Nojel Eastern, who missed the secret scrimmage against Providence and the exhibition victory against Southern Indiana with a foot injury.
• The potential redshirt season for one of the Boilermakers’ three freshmen: Mason Gillis, Brandon Newman and Isaiah Thompson
The 6-foot-6 Eastern indicated he will play against Green Bay. Purdue’s best defensive player and point guard was not wearing a boot on his injured foot when he met with media members Monday. Eastern said he was expecting to practice about 45 minutes.
He doesn’t think there will be many restrictions on his playing time even though Green Bay is known for its up-tempo, pressing style. That could test the endurance of Eastern, who had not practiced since suffering the injury.
“I’m probably going to be a little winded since I haven’t run in a while,” he said. “I don’t think I’ll be under too much of a restriction.”
With Eastern’s health improving, Purdue coach Matt Painter can turn his attention to deciding which, if any, of his freshmen will redshirt.
“We’ve had some discussions but we haven’t made any final decisions yet,” Painter said. “You can go on and on about how much you like somebody as a player but it’s also weighing this year vs. what can happen four years from now. “
In the past, Painter has regretted not using a redshirt year on former shooting guards Ryne Smith and Ryan Cline. Had Cline redshirted, he would be a fifth-year senior on this year’s Purdue squad and lessen the concerns about a go-to scorer.
On the other hand, forward Aaron Wheeler and guard Sasha Stefanovic redshirted two years ago and now are in position to possibly be in the starting lineup Wednesday night.
“Now you look at their careers and they’d be halfway through their careers now instead of just starting their career,” Painter said. “They have a chance to start this year and any time you have a chance to start as a sophomore you should the next two years as well. It doesn’t mean they will, you have to keep earning it, but it puts them in that position. The waiting and the patience of that is sometimes excruciating for people who are competitive.”
Thompson said he has not been approached about sitting out the season. That makes sense due to concerns about Eastern’s foot. Plus, Thompson’s presence would allow sophomore Eric Hunter to also play shooting guard. College basketball redshirt rules do not allow healthy players to apply for the extra year if they play in any regular season games.
Gillis admitted that he and Painter had spoken about the possibility of a redshirt season earlier Monday. If Gillis does sit out the season, it would be the second consecutive year of no playing time for the former standout from New Castle. Gillis lost his senior year with the Trojans while recovering from knee surgery.
How difficult would it be for Gillis to sit out yet another season?
“It will definitely be hard but I think I’m strong enough mentally to be able to get through that again,” Gillis said. “I have a strong support staff back home and here. It will be different from last year. I will be able to work out and improve a few things. We’ll see when the time comes.”
Gillis played 15 minutes in Purdue’s 88-59 victory against Southern Indiana, grabbing six rebounds and going 1 of 2 at the free throw line.
“Friday night was special,” Gillis said. “I had a lot of people come from New Castle, family and friends came up to support me. That meant a lot because they’ve helped me through this past year, talking to me and helping me get through things mentally and physically.
“It’s definitely a big hurdle to get that first game under your belt. It felt good. I really didn’t try to put too much emotion into it. I just tried to take it as another game. Try not to get too high or too low, just keep things simple.”
Gillis is up to 225 pounds, seven pounds heavier or stronger as the case may be, since arriving at Purdue this summer. The Boilermaker coaching staff wants the 6-7 Gillis to learn the 4 position, where Wheeler and senior Evan Boudreaux are ahead of him for the 2019-20 season.
Gillis admits he is still trying to regain his athleticism while also learning to play defense the Purdue way.
“I’ve never really guarded guards and quick people,” he said. “Being off a year, having lost the playing time to get better … moving laterally is the hardest thing for me right now defensively. I think I’ve gotten a lot better since the start of the summer.”
A redshirt season could allow Gillis time to not only regain his physical skills but clear any mental hurdles that remain from his knee injury.
“When I first started playing again I tried not necessarily to let myself go but not to worry about my knee. Just let myself play instead of thinking about everything,” Gillis said. “There hasn’t been one big breakthrough, just a day by day thing getting better and trusting myself.”