Earlier this week, Aaron Torres at FoxSports.com ran a list of of 16 things to watch coming down the stretch of the college basketball season. At the bottom of the list was the question of who would win National Player of the Year. In what Torres accurately calls a wide-open race, he listed four worthy candidates—Lonzo Ball (UCLA), Josh Hart (Villanova), Nigel Williams-Goss (Gonzaga) and Frank Mason (Kansas). The most notable omission on the list was the player who I think is most deserving—Purdue center Caleb Swanigan.
Swanigan has been a beast for the Boilermakers all year, averaging 18 points/13 rebounds per game. In the confines of conference play, he’s narrowly better, averaging a 19/13 line. I follow the Big Ten closely—I’ve reviewed every box score in conference games this year and Swanigan’s stunning consistency is easily what stands out the most.
In a league that had three quality big men—including Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ and Indiana’s Thomas Bryant—Swanigan has clearly separated himself. Happ has been excellent himself, but even as a Badger supporter, I can’t push his case over Swanigan’s. Bryant is enmeshed in the mess that is Tom Crean’s program and been unable to get traction.
Swanigan has double-digit rebounds in all but two games this season and even in those two exceptions he still grabbed eight boards. One of those exceptions was against Villanova, where Swanigan went for 20/8. He put up a 14/11 line on Louisville and dominated Notre Dame to the tune of 26/10. Even if you’re not a believer in the quality of the Big Ten this season—and I can’t say I blame you—Swanigan has gotten it done in marquee games outside the league.
Inside the conference, he went for his 18/13 average in a big showdown game against Happ back in January. Swanigan hauled in an amazing 22 rebounds in a game against Minnesota, a likely NCAA Tournament team. In a road trip to East Lansing, he stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 22 points and 17 rebounds. And in a big road trip to Maryland two weeks ago, the numbers said 26/10 as Purdue got a one-point win that kept their Big Ten title hopes alive.
And speaking of those Big Ten championship aspirations—with Wisconsin in a bit of a slump, having lost two straight and been subpar in three straight (including a one-point win over Nebraska), Purdue is now in a three-way tie with the Badgers and Terps for the conference lead. With the latter two playing head-to-head on Sunday, Purdue is in position to have it down to a two-way tie by the end of the weekend.
That makes tomorrow’s home game with Michigan State all the more important. The Boilers will get the ESPN stage in a decent time slot, at 4 PM ET. It’s a time for Swanigan to showcase himself.
I mentioned earlier that I root for Wisconsin. I also spent three years in the early 1990s at Indiana University where I loved Bob Knight (it was Knight’s unjust firing that caused me to sever ties with the Hoosiers). So there’s nothing in my pedigree as a fan that would lead me to go all-in for a Purdue player. But I find myself pulling for this team and I wouldn’t mind in the least if they win the school’s first national championship. The biggest reason is how much I like the kid from Fort Wayne, Caleb Swanigan. Let’s get him some love in the National Player of the Year race.