Purdue’s superstar sophomore forward, inching closer to player-of-the-year honors with every double double, of which there seems to be no end in sight, had a highlight performance in a signature Boiler win over no-longer-surging Wisconsin that altered the Big Ten race
The former Homestead standout had 18 points and 13 rebounds for his eighth-straight double-double and national-leading 14th of the season in Sunday night’s 66-55 victory.
He also had eight turnovers, four in each half, which showcased unwanted consistency.
“My game has grown a lot by playing with the team,” Swanigan said. “I’m not forcing as many things.
“I had a lot of turnovers. It was the way of the whistle with a lot of travels called. That’s where my growth has to continue — to take care of the ball.”
His growth certainly impressed Wisconsin coach Greg Gard.
“Last year he improved as much as any player we saw in the conference. This year he’s taken it to a whole new level.
“He can hurt you in so many ways. He’s relentless on the glass. You’ve got to respect him at the three. He’s better from the free throw line. He’s taken the kind of step you’d think an elite player would take. He’s a handful. He’s quick enough to counter size and powerful enough to handle strong guys. He plays so hard. When I was watching the film, how hard he played was something that really jumped out.”
No one appreciates that more than Purdue coach Matt Painter.
“He does a good job of playing through other people. He’s very efficient. He really works really hard at it.”
The No. 20 Boilers (14-3 overall, 3-1 in the Big Ten) had to beat Wisconsin, as much for the sake of the Big Ten race as their own title prospects. If the No. 13 Badgers (13-3, 2-1) had pulled off a Mackey-Assembly Hall sweep (they won at IU last Tuesday for a ninth straight win), as tough a feat as there is in college basketball, there might have been no stopping them.
Now, we have a race.
With Nebraska also losing on Sunday — at home to dangerous Northwestern — every Big Ten team has at least one loss.
Parity rules and who knows how many losses the champ will have.
“We understand how big this game was,” center Isaac Haas said. “It’s important when they’re choosing NCAA Tournament teams.
“(As far as the Big Ten), it feels nice to know we’re at the top of the list.”
On Sunday, Purdue communicated, defended and hustled as it hadn’t all season.
Wisconsin buckled, which happens about as often as Steph Curry goes scoreless.
The catalyst — a blown Badger layup.
Seven minutes into the second half, with Purdue up 40-36, Wisconsin forward Ethan Happ got his fifth steal and tossed the ball to a streaking D’Mitrik Trice for what should have been an easy basket to cut the lead to two.
But Trice hesitated, missed the shot, Swanigan grabbed the rebound and was fouled The Boilers responded with 12 straight points — highlighted by a P.J. Thompson three-pointer and seven straight Ryan Cline points — for a 16-point lead.
“It started to snowball on us,” Gard said. We could never get it back. There were 64 possessions in the game and that seven-possession segment tipped the table.”
Added Cline: “We were fortunate he missed. After that, it unfolded in our way. We were playing good team ball. We were getting each other open.”
Purdue won by 11 despite allowing 14 points off 18 turnovers. The reason — it shot 52.2 percent and dominated the rebounding, 34-22.
Imagine how good the Boilers can be if they ever solve the turnover problem.
“Matt has a heck of a team, as complete a Purdue team as I’ve seen in a while, maybe since Robbie Hummel and E’Twaun Moore,” Gard said about the 2010 Boiler squad.
“They can hurt you in so many ways. That area has really grown for them. Their perimeter game has improved. It presents a lot of problems.”
That will be true for a lot of Big Ten teams, and a championship could be the result.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Pete DiPrimio at firstname.lastname@example.org.