Fun and focus – Purdue’s Big Ten title aftermath Caleb Swanigan, Matt Painter stay serious.
Has fun bypassed Caleb Swanigan?
Flash back to Tuesday night’s post-Indiana-win press conference at Mackey Arena. Pieces of a cut-up net hangs from Swanigan’s neck, symbolic of Purdue’s Big Ten basketball championship and the sophomore forward radiates as much excitement as if he’d just tied his shoes.
“Yeah, I enjoyed it,” he says. “It’s been fun.”
His tone is so flat, his expression so somber, it’s like a Steven Wright comedy bit — without the jokes.
“I had fun,” he insists again on Friday afternoon when asked about the championship moment.
He flashes a brief smile as he heads to practice, a hint of the fun-loving nature that dominates behind closed doors.
Swanigan has had a busy Friday. ESPN2 profiled him in the morning. CBS Evening News featured him that night. Neither distracts his preparation for Sunday’s regular-season finale at Northwestern, and beyond.
“It’s all about the postseason,” he says.
Swanigan is a serious guy. That’s how he transformed himself from an overweight teenager into perhaps college basketball’s best player — a double-double machine putting up numbers we haven’t seen in a generation (18.6 points, 12.5 rebounds, 2.8 assists), as well as an academic All-America honors (3.30 grade point average) The former Homestead standout is a man on a mission, and the end game is a long, lucrative, successful NBA career.
But that is way too far in the future. For now Swanigan’s focus is simple — win. Win at Northwestern on Sunday. Win the Big Ten tourney title. Win more NCAA tourney games than any Purdue team has ever done before.
“My main thoughts are closing out the season with a win and being competitive in the Big Ten tournament and gaining momentum for the NCAA Tournament,” he says.
Swanigan is asked if winning the Big Ten title — the No. 16 Boilers (24-6 overall, 13-4 in the Big Ten) clinched the outright championship thanks to Iowa upsetting Wisconsin Thursday night — will strip away the enthusiasm for the Northwestern game.
The Wildcats (21-9, 10-7) are coming off a dramatic 67-65 home win over Michigan that almost certainly clinched their first-ever NCAA tourney appearance.
“No,” Swanigan says about any chance of overlooking them. “It’s just another game we have to prepare for. We want to treat every opponent with respect. That’s what we want to do with Northwestern.”
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Has fun bypassed Matt Painter?
The veteran Purdue coach has plenty on his mind. The Big Ten title is just part of that.
“We’re celebrating (Tuesday night),” he says, “and we have a game on Sunday. It’s an important game. Someone has to keep the balance.”
The biggest burden falls on the head coach. Painter has won big during his 12 seasons at Purdue – 262 victories, three Big Ten coach-of-the-year awards, two conference titles, one conference tourney championship and two Sweet 16 appearances.
Yes, he’s endured fierce criticism, from the failure to get past the Sweet 16 to consecutive losing seasons in 2013 and ’14, to blowing late leads in the opening games of the last two NCAA tourney appearances
“It’s hard to enjoy it,” Painter says about the Big Ten title. “I think every coach who gets out of coaching, whether it’s their choice or somebody else’s choice, you wish you had enjoyed it more, but it’s impossible to enjoy it. No matter what you do, somebody is mad. That’s the way it is. So you are constantly thinking, what can I do for our program, for our team and our players, to get ready for that next game?
“Once (the NCAA tourney is over), and there’s only one team that wins, people are critical of you. Now you have to do what’s best for your program. That’s what we want to do. We want to keep getting better. Not settle.”
Even as the clock hit zero against Indiana, Painter was steaming about late-game mistakes by junior guard P.J. Thompson.
“I was mad at P.J. at the end.Here I am, those guys are celebrating, and I’m wondering why he fouled that guy and missed his free throws. He’s been great for us. You look at guys and they have three stars, four stars, five stars, but you’ve got to get guys who are about winning. P.J. is about winning.”
Painter gave the Boilers 24 hours to enjoy the title before resuming focus for Northwestern and beyond.
“(The first 24 hours) is theirs,” he says. “They’re the ones who should enjoy it. This is something they’ll cherish forever.
I’m happy for those guys. We had a lot of people doubt us. Our best player (Swanigan) has handled unbelievable adversity. We have guys who are good, solid players who make shots, make plays and who complement our size.
“But you can celebrate when the season is over. We have to get back to work.”
And so they do. <br>
<center> Up next </center><br>
Tip-off: Purdue at Northwestern, 4:30 p.m. Sunday