The Purdue Boilermakers got bad news this week as sophomore point guard Lewis Jackson underwent foot surgery.
Jackson started 30 games at the point for Purdue in 2008-09, averaging 5.9 ppg and leading the Old Gold and Black in assists.
According to the university, Jackson is out indefinitely, which seems to constitute a horrible blow to the Boilers' hopes for a special season.
Or is it?
While Jackson's speed will be missed, the Boilermakers basically had six starters anyway. In addition to guards Chris Kramer and E'Twaun Moore, Keaton Grant is a more than adequate addition to the starting backcourt: In fact, he's started 49 games for Purdue in the past two seasons and was voted the Boilermakers' team MVP in 2007-08.
Grant's three-point shooting provides an extra threat that a pass-first distributor like Jackson does not, and a lineup of Grant, Kramer, Moore, and All-Big Ten candidates Robbie Hummel and JaJuan Johnson remains arguably the league's finest.
After all, Purdue went 25-9 two seasons ago, pre-Jackson, with the exact same lineup (although then-project Johnson split time at the center spot with Nemanja Calasan).
Throw in an extra two years of experience for the now-veteran upperclassmen, and the Boilers appear to have the luxury of surviving what could be a long stretch without Jackson.
I'll go so far as to wager a guess that Jackson doesn't start a game for Purdue all year. While we don't know how serious the injury is (besides that it required surgery), from the tone of some of Matt Painter's comments, a lengthy absence appears a near-certainty.
Once the Kramer-Grant-Moore-Hummel-Johnson combo has played together for that amount of time, even if Jackson does return to play significant minutes in 2009-10, it would probably be from a bench role, so as not to upset the chemistry of an established lineup.
The real question for Painter and company going into the season was not who would start, but what kind of depth existed behind the top six (now five): That area of concern has understandably skyrocketed with this week's unfortunate injury news.
The only returning backcourt options have rarely seen the floor: sophomore sharpshooter Ryne Smith, redshirt freshman John Hart, and former walk-on Mark Wohlford. All three reserves could contribute, but the level of production they might provide is a question mark at best.
And that brings us to the freshmen, a quartet of players that will have to make an instant impact if Purdue wants to reach its lofty preseason goals.
D.J. Byrd had 13 points in his Boilermaker debut, one of the highest first-game totals for a rookie under Painter. He has been described as a hard-nosed, Kramer-type (can we just say Kramerian?) defender with a bit more scoring potential. In short, Byrd seems the most ready of any of the four to contribute on the college level.
Another potential backcourt star is 6'5" Kelsey Barlow, a tremendous athlete who nearly redshirted this season. With Jackson's injury, Barlow's playing time should skyrocket. His improvement is probably the most critical for the Boilers' Final Four hopes.
The other first-year players, Patrick Bade and Sandi Marcius, provide some desperately-needed size on the front line behind Johnson and Hummel.
Marcius is still a few weeks away from his '09-'10 debut, as the 6'9" Croatian recovers from a foot injury of his own, while Bade will team with high school teammate Johnson to help Purdue with its Achilles heel—rebounding.
Bottom line: Before Jackson's injury, the Purdue Boilermakers looked like a team with a dangerous starting lineup and not a lot of depth or experience behind that.
Now that Jackson has been shelved indefinitely, the lineup shouldn't suffer one iota, but the bench concerns have suddenly become even more prominent.
Here's hoping the newest Baby Boilers grow up in a hurry. Despite an overabundance of talent, the starting five can't win any championships by themselves.