WEST LAFAYETTE - So what do you do with Lewis Jackson?
February is approaching, two-thirds of Purdue's basketball season is basically over, and Jackson is only now approaching all-go readiness after foot surgery. Here are the options entering Thursday night's crucial Big Ten game against Wisconsin: Play the sophomore guard or redshirt him. There is no easy answer, only risk and, perhaps, reward.
Which is greater?
Coach Matt Painter will let Jackson make that call. “It will be his decision,” Painter said.
“As a coach, you have to play devil's advocate. If something else happens, whether he's played in two minutes or two games, that's his season. You have to paint a couple of worst-case scenarios to make sure he understands if something happens again, it will cost him a season. Those are the rules. It's a tough pill to swallow.”
Still, with No. 10 Purdue (16-3 overall, 4-3 in the Big Ten) vying for a Big Ten title and Final Four berth, it might be worth the risk.
“Lewis is very competitive,” Painter said. “He wants to play with these guys. He's chomping at the bit. It depends on when the doctors clear him.”
Could it happen in time for him to see some action against Wisconsin? In these John-Hart-shoots-down-Illinois times, anything is possible, but next month is more realistic, given Jackson has spent the last two months healing from surgery.
“We want him to play at a high level,” Painter said, “but you always have to check his soreness and swelling. We're trying to get him in shape, but we don't want to overdo things. It will take time. We'll see if he can come back in the next week or two.”
First, doctors have to clear him. Then Jackson has to practice and show he has the fitness and timing to warrant playing time.
“He has to understand he might not get 20 to 25 minutes a game,” Painter said. “He'll have to work his way in and be productive when he is in there. It might go from five to 10 to 15 minutes. It depends on his play and how the other guys play.”
Jackson has been cleared for non-contact drills and practice. He conditions on a treadmill and elliptical machines.
“He's slowly getting his wind back,” Painter said. “The next step is to do contact drills.”
The 5-9 Jackson is not the second coming of, say, Rick Mount. He is not a dominating scorer, an unstoppable passer, a game-changing defender. But, when healthy, he is quick, plays in-your-face defense, and can handle and distribute the ball. He averaged 5.9 points and 3.3 assists last season while starting 30 of 36 games.
“His quickness helps us,” Painter said. “His being the quintessential point guard helps us. He can break people down and also break down a press.”
Those attributes would be crucial against No. 16 Wisconsin (16-4, 6-2). Badger guards Jordan Taylor, Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon combined for 57 points, 10 rebounds and three steals in a 73-66 victory over Purdue earlier this month at the Kohl Center.
“Their guards are as good as any in our league in terms of creating their own shots and breaking you down off the dribble,” Painter said. “… They know when to probe the defense and when to attack in their swing offense. Guard play will be big in this game.”
That includes Purdue senior Chris Kramer and his sore ankle. The former Huntington North standout sprained it in the Northwestern loss 11 days ago.
“It's bothering him,” Painter said, “but we have a game to play. A lot of people are banged up. It's part of it.
“We try to make an environment where you don't make excuses. He played like a senior against Michigan. That's what we need from him.”