When the Mackey Arena crowd was roaring throughout Purdue's Jan. 1 rout of sixth-ranked West Virginia, injured Boilermakers guard Lewis Jackson sat on the bench in street clothes wishing he were a part of it. When his teammates were struggling to break Ohio State's press during a 70--66 loss on Jan. 12, the sophomore point man with the broken left foot wished he could help them. Yet after doctors cleared him to play, finally, Jackson, who had started 30 games as a freshman, had to think twice before running back onto the court: Having missed more than half the season, should he take a medical redshirt and preserve a year of eligibility, or should he return to the team and hope his presence wouldn't disrupt a rotation that was 16--3 without him? "He really didn't want to hurt the chemistry," says junior forward JaJuan Johnson. "But I told him, 'I think we can be even better if you come back.'"
Jackson opted to return. "I believe we have the potential to make it to the Final Four, and it's every player's dream to have that opportunity," Jackson said before playing 12 minutes in his season debut on Jan. 28 against Wisconsin. And his presence didn't slow the Boilers, who won all of his first eight games back. But in that eighth game, on Feb. 24 at Minnesota, Purdue's hopes of reaching its first Final Four in 30 years took a devastating turn: Junior forward Robbie Hummel, the team's leading rebounder and second-leading scorer, tore his right ACL and was out for the season.
After a 53--44 loss to Michigan State, coach Matt Painter decided to go with a smaller, quicker lineup, clearing the way for Jackson to become a starter again. Purdue won three of its last four, finishing 28--5 after a loss to Minnesota in the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament. In his four starts Jackson had 14 assists against only two turnovers, but he missed the last six minutes of the loss to the Gophers after it appeared he had reinjured his left foot.
Despite some lingering soreness, Jackson is expected to be ready for the No. 4--seeded Boilermakers' first-round matchup against Siena on Friday, much to the relief of Painter. "When he pushes the ball, he puts our transition offense into another gear," says the coach.