WEST LAFAYETTE — During Matt Painter’s 15 seasons as Purdue men’s basketball coach, he probably hasn’t seen a Boilermaker whose confidence ebbs and flows like junior guard Nojel Eastern.
Never known as a good free throw shooter, Eastern seemed to finally break through that mental barrier last season. In one stretch, Eastern made 16 of 18 in Big Ten Conference play, including six in a row to seal a victory against No. 6 Michigan State in Mackey Arena.
Eastern closed the 2018-19 season shooting better than 70% at the line (62 of 88). Problem solved, right?
During a 93-49 victory against Chicago State, Eastern changed his shooting hand from left to right. Eastern missed all four of his free throw tries that night, the only free throw attempts he has had this season.
“It was just something I thought I needed for the time being,” Eastern said Tuesday when asked about the switch.
Then Eastern revealed another reason for the change.
“I’m just a natural right-hander. I throw with my right hand, pass with my right hand.”
But for two seasons, Eastern took jump shots and free throws using his left hand.
It’s a change that doesn’t meet with Painter’s approval.
“He needs to get to the line and stick with his routine,” Painter said. “I’ve encouraged him to stay with shooting it left-handed because of the success he had last year. I think that always makes sense when you have a reference point. Get to the line, nail a couple and I think that all goes away.”
Painter hopes the confidence Eastern gained by make a trio of jump shots in last Saturday’s 81-49 victory against Jacksonville State will carry over into an upcoming stretch of difficult games for the Boilermakers.
Purdue’s next seven opponents have a combined record of 36-7, starting with undefeated VCU (7-0) Friday night in the Emerald Coast Classic at Destin, Florida. Either undefeated Tennessee (6-0) or Florida State (6-1) await on Saturday, followed by a home date Dec. 4 with undefeated and reigning national champion Virginia.
“He made those three pull-ups the other day and that was great to see,” Painter said. “The one thing I feel good about is he never wavers in terms of his work. I feel if you stay confident with your work and stay positive, good things will happen.”
Eastern agrees that he does lack confidence in his shot at times.
“I work on it in practice,” he said. “I just need to be a lot more aggressive. Coach has been giving me tips on consistency. Now it just needs to translate to the game.”
Eastern is shooting 41.9% from the field after making 3 of 4 shots against Jacksonville State. He is averaging 5.2 points, 3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game.
Not only is VCU a chance to be an NCAA tournament résumé-building game in the opinion of Eastern and Painter, it’s also a chance to soften the memory of a devastating 94-76 loss in the 2011 tournament.
“It was such a shock to us,” Painter recalls. “We had a good team that was second in the Big Ten and a three seed in the NCAA tournament. They blew our doors off. Very humbling.”
Purdue should be better prepared for VCU’s frantic style of play. Most of the Boilermakers have faced a similar style in secret scrimmages against West Virginia and Providence; the latter was this year. Purdue let a 14-point lead slip away against the Friars but were playing without an injured Eastern.
“We’ve tried to do a better job scheduling scrimmages, scheduling overall, to face some teams that are different than what we face in the conference,” Painter said. “We’ve scrimmaged West Virginia three times and this year we scrimmaged Providence, who changes their defense, just for this purpose. [VCU] has some similar things in how they scramble, fly around the court and press. They make you play the game different than what you are used to playing.”