WEST LAFAYETTE – Caleb Swanigan checks his cell phone from Purdue’s Mackey Arena locker room. He sits opposite his Boiler teammates, part of the group and yet not, goals looming that, if realized, will boost him and the Boilers into uncharted territory.
The sophomore forward already has had a season to remember — Big Ten player of the year, All-America honors from four different organizations, national player-of-the-year contender, more double-doubles than anyone in America (26), and the leader of a conference champion.
But now comes college basketball’s ultimate proving ground. The NCAA Tournament rates with any sporting event in the world, a three-week challenge in which anything can happen, and often does.
Thrive and you can help deliver team glory, set yourself up for a big professional payday or, at least, produce memories that can last a lifetime.
“I'm going to find out about my season now," says Swanigan, a former Homestead standout. "This is where all of my goals are, so I'm going to see what my season's made of now.”
Fourth-seeded Purdue (25-7) opens Midwest Regional play on Thursday in Milwaukee against 13th-seed Vermont (29-5), the nation’s hottest team with a 21-game winning streak. They are among 68 squads vying for a national championship under one-and-done pressure.
“This is everybody's proving ground,” Swanigan says. “This is where you come to play. This is what it's all about.”
Is there a chance that Swanigan, given the national spotlight, could try to do too much?
Coach Matt Painter doesn’t see it happening.
“No, not really. He’s the one (opponents) make a decision on — how they’ll double him, when they’ll double him. It’s the same with (center Isaac Haas).
“We play differently than a lot of people because we play through our post so much. How these teams will handle that will be a big question mark. They don’t face people like that. I know they can’t do anything we haven’t seen.
“Caleb has confidence and that helps him. I played with (former college player of the year) Glenn Robinson, and when you’re with guys who are really good and who believe in themselves, they help you more than they hurt you. No question.”
The Boilers once were a model of NCAA tourney consistency, winning 14 straight opening-round games under Painter and Gene Keady.
Two consecutive seasons of one-and-done heartbreaks — blowing late leads in both — have fans on edge.
The players … not so much.
“There’s no pressure,” Swanigan says. “It’s just a game. There’s not anything life threatening. I’ve been doing what I’ve been doing for a while. We all have.”
Purdue’s last game was a bitter disappointment. It blew a winnable game against Michigan in Friday’s Big Ten tourney quarterfinals, losing in overtime as it did in its last two NCAA tourney games to Cincinnati and Arkansas Little Rock.
No matter. This is a new story and the Boilers are determined to provide a happier ending.
“There’s a huge sense of urgency,” Swanigan says, “but it’s mostly about being ready for Vermont and playing another game. We’re capable of doing our best, of giving Vermont our best.”
That best will be necessary because Vermont is no pushover. USA Today called the Catamounts a “Cinderella” because of their patient and efficient offense, a scoring defense that ranks in the top 12 nationally (63.2 points allowed) and because 13th seeds have upset No. 4 seeds 26 times in tourney history.
It happened most recently last year, when Hawaii stunned Cal.
Vermont hasn’t lost since falling to Butler just before Christmas, and cruised to a 16-0 America East Conference record before sweeping to the conference tourney title.
It has the America East Conference player of the year in point guard Trae Bell-Haynes (11.3 points, 3.9 assists, 1.1 steals), the defensive player of the year in guard Dre Wills (among the league leaders in blocks and steals), the Sixth Man of the Year in forward Darren Payen (7.1 points, 2.4 rebounds, 71 percent shooting) and the conference’s top newcomer in freshman forward Anthony Lamb (12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds, 1.2 blocks).
Plus, John Becker was named America East coach of the year for the second time.
Still, the Catamounts have no one taller than 6-8, and did lost to Purdue at Mackey Arena last season, 107-79, which has no relevance now.
“I know they’ve won 21 straight games and went undefeated in their conference,” forward Vincent Edwards says. “That speaks for itself. That’s impressive. They’re a good, solid team.”
The Boilers project as a better one. On Thursday they’ll get the chance to prove it.
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.
UP NEXT: Purdue (25-7) vs. Vermont (29-5), NCAA tourney, Milwaukee
TIPOFF: 7:27 p.m., Thursday
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