WEST LAFAYETTE —With pesky junior guard Nojel Eastern defending the ball on the perimeter and rim-protecting 7-foot-3 junior center Matt Haarms inside, Purdue projects to be a stronger defensive team in 2019-20.
“We have the team and the athleticism to be one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten and hopefully the country,” Eastern said at Big Ten media day in Chicago. “It’s something I will continue to push.”
But Purdue coach Matt Painter has been around long enough to know it takes time and effort to build a team capable of smothering opponents. Entering his 15th season with the Boilermakers, Painter said Purdue will need to prove on the court it’s worthy of any preseason defensive praise.
“You can’t practice for a week and be good at something when you went six months of kinda working on it,” Painter said. “You don’t kind of work on things. You either work on things or you don’t.”
The 6-6 Eastern was an All-Big Ten defender last season, while Haarms led the Big Ten in blocked shots at 2.1 per game. As a team, Purdue ranked tied for seventh in scoring defense (67.3 ppg allowed), sixth in steals (6.1 spg) and third in rebounding margin (plus-5.1).
Those numbers are going to need to improve to help compensate for the loss of Carsen Edwards, who led the Big Ten in scoring at 24.3 points per game.
“Nobody is really defensive minded,” Eastern said. “Until you get older, you don’t realize what it takes to win, and then I found out what it took to win and what I needed to do to help my team win and that was to get stops and try to be the best defender on the court every single game.”
Haarms and Eastern are the two returning starters from a Purdue team that was co-Big Ten champ and went 26-10 last season, reaching the Elite Eight for the first time since 2000.
Sophomore 6-9 center Trevion Williams could see his role expand in the frontcourt, as could sophomore 6-9 forward Aaron Wheeler, who shot 36.5 percent from 3-point range.
There’s also competition at the wing spots, with grad transfer guard Jahad Proctor, sophomore guard Sasha Stefanovic, sophomore guard Eric Hunter Jr. and freshman guard Brandon Newman fighting for starting jobs.
“Sasha has more experience than those guys,” Painter said. “If anybody is ahead of those guys, it’s him. He has shot the ball well. Jahad has scored the ball the last couple of practices, has done a good job. Looks like he’s getting more comfortable.”
Painter said Newman, a four-star recruit from Valparaiso, is showing competitiveness in practice as well.
“Like all freshmen, he wants to be able to get it all, understand it all. That’s not the way it works,” Painter said. “There’s a process to it, but he’s very competitive. He’s had a couple of practices where he’s really made shots.”
Another new addition this season is associate coach Micah Shrewsberry, who left good friend Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics to return to Purdue. Shrewsberry coached under Painter with the Boilermakers from 2011-13. Shrewsberry is going to be counted on to help design an offense that plays to Purdue’s strengths.
“In practice, he’s great,” Haarms said. “The knowledge he brings … Sometimes he just draws stuff up, and he doesn’t even know what it is, but he knows it’s going to work. He has such a deep knowledge of the offense.”
Purdue will hold its basketball fan day Oct. 19, beginning at 10 a.m. at Mackey Arena. Admission is free. Doors will open at 10:45 a.m., with the autograph session featuring both the men’s and women’s teams beginning at 11 a.m., lasting about an hour. The men will then hold an intrasquad scrimmage, beginning at 12:30 p.m.