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  • Purdue's Carsen Edwards and Grady Eifert (middle) prepare to participate in a drill at the Boilermakers' first practice of the season Tuesday. 

Friday, October 12, 2018 1:00 am

Boilers' coach values Dwenger grad's grit

Former walk-on Eifert has elevated to captain as a senior

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

ROSEMONT, Illinois – At Big Ten Media Day, coaches are supposed to bring two players to represent their team. Purdue coach Matt Painter, who has been attending the event for well over a decade, said he first learned of that guideline on Thursday.

Painter brought three Boilermakers with him to the conference's season kick-off: preseason Big Ten Player of the Year Carsen Edwards, likely starter Ryan Cline and senior forward Grady Eifert. 

While Edwards and Cline are clear choices as two of the Boilermakers' best returning players, Eifert is a less obvious pick. The Fort Wayne native started just two games last season and is a former walk-on. Still, Painter believes Eifert represents the Boilers well.

“(Grady)'s one of our seniors, he's one of our captains,” Painter said. “I think he can bring a lot of value to our team. … When you put Grady at the 4, he rebounds, he defends, he runs plays hard, he executes.”

When Eifert entered Purdue in 2015, it wasn't at all clear whether he'd end up having a significant role in his career with the Boilermakers. When he got to West Lafayette, the Purdue frontcourt featured Caleb Swanigan, A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas.

“I knew coming in that no time soon I was going to be starting any games,” said Eifert, a Bishop Dwenger graduate. “That frontcourt was loaded, but I always knew that if I just kept working at it, something might happen. I think that's the biggest thing is just having the right mindset.”

Painter was more sure of Eifert's future with the Boilermakers. The coach said that many walk-ons simply don't have the physical ability to play Big Ten basketball, but that was never a problem for the 6-foot-6, 220-pound Eifert.

“A lot of times you get walk-ons and you're like, 'I like you, you're a good high school player, but physically you can't play in this league,'” Painter said. “(Eifert) can, he'll knock the tar out of you. He's not scared one bit.”

Eifert played well enough as a freshman to earn a scholarship before his sophomore season and has earned a progressively bigger role over the last two years. Last season, he was the primary backup for forward Vincent Edwards and jumped into the starting lineup twice when Edwards was hurt in February. 

Now, the senior is fighting for minutes at what might be the deepest position on the team; Dartmouth transfer Evan Boudreaux and redshirt freshman Aaron Wheeler represent obstacles to Eifert seeing the floor.

Eifert's advantage in that competition is that he's had to battle for playing time every year he's been at Purdue. Painter has praised the forward's effort in practice and that hard work has continued into this preseason.

“It doesn't matter who you are, there's always competition, no spot is ever guaranteed to you,” Eifert said. “You want to play like your life depended on it and you want to play like you don't have a starting spot.”

Even if Eifert were inclined to take anything for granted, some trips back to Fort Wayne would dissuade him from doing so. He worked out at Optimum Performance Sports in the city this summer and has also visited Bishop Dwenger and gotten shots up during some Saints open gyms.

He said the players there now haven't been overly impressed by a Big Ten basketball player doing shooting drills with them.

“I walked through those hallways the same way they did,” he said. “If anything I get joked about for something I did in a game. … A lot of them are IU fans, so we go back and forth with it. It's all love, though.”

It seems likely there will be less joking at Eifert's expense if he plays a key role in another Boilermakers NCAA Tournament run.