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Caleb Swanigan and Purdue Immortality

This is not just another fluff piece on Caleb Swanigan. It is a piece on what he means to us as a member of the Purdue family.

Rutgers v Purdue Photo by Michael Hickey/Getty Images

The first time I was really aware of Caleb Swanigan I was really mad at him. It was March 16, 2014: Regional Saturday in Indiana. This day is practically a holy day for lovers of Indiana High School Basketball like me. The 64 sectional winners are winnowed down to 16 survivors in one day. Over the course of about 12 hours, 48 games eliminate the pretenders from the contenders in the tournament at 16 different sites (4 in each class since class basketball started in 1998).

As a Kokomo Wildkat alum, I am deeply familiar with Regional Saturday. My Kats have won a state record 74 sectional titles in the 106 state tournaments before this season. Only once have we gone longer than three years without playing on Regional Saturday, and 34 times we have survived the two-games-in-one day gauntlet (Second all-time in state history). That March 16th Kokomo was playing in a 4th straight regional, led by Tayler Persons (who will appear in this story later). They had been beaten the previous two years by Carmel, who went on to win the state title each time. This time they drew Homestead, led by Swanigan, who was a sophomore.

I had just purchased my first home a few weeks before and was using that Saturday to work paint and fix it up. I was going to go to the championship game that night if Kokomo won, but Swanigan had other ideas. He showed why he was an up and coming player not only in the state, but nationally as he had 18 points, 22 rebounds, 6 assists, and 2 blocks in a 68-60 win over my Kats. That Kokomo team was good, but lacked size outside of Erik Bowen (now playing at NAIA Grace College). Swanigan was no match for them. As I watched that game on my laptop while painting it became obvious: there was no way we could stop this guy.

Homestead went on to win its first ever regional that night. The giant school just outside of Ft. Wayne is not a basketball power in anyway, but with Swanigan they had their first real tournament success. He led them to two of their nine sectional titles, both regional titles, and their lone state title the next season in 2015.

I remember wondering if we were recruiting him at the time, having no idea of his backstory. I knew he was a good player. He demolished my Kats fair and square, making me instantly respect him even if it upset me, but he was only a sophomore. After doing some research I saw he was a national top 10 recruit. I kind of passed it off as, “He’s good, but we won’t get him.”

“We don’t get guys like Caleb Swanigan,” I said.

Now we’re here, almost three years later to the day, and Swanigan is about to become a Purdue immortal. Purdue does not retire numbers, but if you are an All-American or win a national individual award your name and number goes in the rafters of Mackey Arena. For diehard Purdue fans, those guys are immortal. Wooden. Mount. Robinson (more commonly just called Big Dog). Moore. Hummel. They are names spoken with reverence. The Hummel-Moore-Johnson trio came and left as the first to add their names up there since the Big Dog.

Swanigan will join them some day.

At minimum, we have seven games left with Caleb Swanigan. At most, we have 14, I think. It is becoming increasingly unlikely that he will return for his final two seasons of eligibility. That is the nature of five-star McDonald’s All-Americans. They are destined to leave early. You get them for a year, maybe two, and they are gone. Generally, if they stay longer than two years questions arise of “will they ever make it in the NBA?” It is part of the brutal nature of this game. The NBA is always looking for best and youngest with potential. The entire Draft is often based more on what a guy could do some day than what he has already done. Caleb Swanigan could easily return next season average an insane 20-20 each game, and win a national title for Purdue, but the NBA scouts could be like, “he doesn’t really fit in today’s NBA” or “This raw freshman has incredible athleticism.”

I don’t know what Caleb’s NBA future holds. I think in the long run he will be just fine because if an NBA team doesn’t want a guy that works his ass off and rebounds like a demon they are crazy. What I do know is that for 58 of the past 59 Purdue basketball games (he missed last year’s win at Minnesota) it has been a joy and absolute honor watching this young man play basketball for my university.

It goes beyond numbers, really. Sure, his first game was like so many at Purdue. He had 11 points and 11 rebounds against North Carolina A&T. It has been about watching him grow. Even though the Sports Illustrated article made it sound like he didn’t want to come to Purdue at first, I think he has found that it has been great for him:

“I didn’t want to come to Purdue,” Biggie says. “I just had to put my feelings aside. Purdue had the best basketball situation, and that’s all I based it off of.”

He didn’t even call Painter to tell him the news—Biggie made Barnes do it. They were mad at each other: Biggie at Barnes for not trusting him to make his own decision, Barnes at Biggie for letting emotion hijack the process. Says Biggie, “It was quiet around the house for a couple of weeks.”

Normally a situation like that can be detrimental. There are many players that would remain aloof in their quest for what helps them get to the NBA the fastest. Look at last year’s No. 1 overall pick in Ben Simmons and this year’s projected No. 1 overall pick in Markelle Fultz. It is blatantly obvious they played their one year of college basketball only because they were required to. They did not make their teams better. In fact, neither of their teams made the NCAA tournament (barring a miracle run from Washington this year). Can they really be that good if they can even get their college team to the NCAAs?

The SI article mentions that Caleb went to camps at Purdue and got mad that we didn’t offer him early enough. His recruiting was even accelerated when he skipped over his junior year of high school to reclassify as a member of the 2015 class. He graduated high school in three years to get there sooner. Even when he was recruited and finally landed him we had had to make special accommodations:

To free up a scholarship, Purdue also had to make a business decision. The day he decommitted from Michigan State, the Boilermakers had a transfer recruit in West Lafayette on an official visit. “It was one of the lowest feelings I’ve had as a coach,” says Painter, who had to inform the player his offer was on ice. “I loved the kid, and he would have fit here. But he’s not Biggie Swanigan. So you’ve gotta make the decision that’s best for your program.”

I am about 99% sure that the player in question here is the aforementioned Persons. Persons was transferring from Northern Kentucky after being the Atlantic Sun Freshman of the Year. Purdue was interested in him and my sources from Kokomo told me he was visiting around that time. I watched him play for four years and he is definitely a hard-nosed kid that would have fit perfectly. The only reason he played against Swanigan in that 2014 game is because he dropped more than 30 points on James Blackmon Jr. in the sectional, and this was about 4 months after he had torn his ACL as quarterback for Kokomo’s football team.

I love Tayler. He would be great to have on this year’s team and he would have had three years to play starting this season, but we didn’t have room for him and Biggie both scholarship-wise in 2015-16. He would either have to pay his own way in the year he was sitting out as a transfer or go elsewhere. Now he is Ball State’s leading scorer.

So you have a player coming in that needed special accommodations just because he is so good and he may not want to be here anyway. Normally, that doesn’t mesh well with the existing team. Those tensions were smoothed over and Biggie had a great freshman season. He tested the draft waters, got his feedback, and returned for this season, where he might be the best player in the country.

Unlike many of the pieces released on Biggie this week, I haven’t even touched on his past. You all know it by now. If not, stop reading for a moment and watch the excellent video produced by Purdue about his background. It’s about 19 minutes long, so I’ll wait.

There is something about Purdue sports, especially basketball, where we respect sheer determination and hard work. I think it comes from the persona of being the state’s second team when it comes to the game. We live in the shadow of Indiana. We know that any respect we get has to be earned through that hard work. We revere guys like Brian Cardinal, who played in the NBA for more than a decade based solely on guts and doing the little things.

Caleb Swanigan is the ultimate Brian Cardinal.

I mean, how else can you explain it? In 6 years he dropped 110 pounds and has completely mastered a position on the college basketball floor. I say he has mastered the power forward position because there is no one in the country that can touch his production. He LITERALLY worked his ass off to get here! He plays like a man possessed and then, if he doesn’t meet his lofty standards, he goes and works out after the game.

His work ethic alone would be enough for Purdue fans to adore him, but with his backstory and the fact that he is the best player to come to West Lafayette in two decades, well… I know I am not the only one sad at the prospect that we may only have another 4-6 weeks of watching him play in Old Gold and Black.

Only one team gets to win the NCAA championship, and Purdue has never been that team (I don’t count 1932). The odds are that this season will end with a loss in the NCAA Tournament. It might be a third straight first round disappointment. It might be in the Sweet 16 in Kansas City, San Jose, New York, or Memphis. If we get some luck and play to our potential it will end in Phoenix at the Final Four, win or lose. If Caleb leads us there, he instantly rises above even Big Dog because of how long it has been.

Remember; We only waited 34 years between Rose Bowls. It has been 37 since our last final Four.

After that, it will be awards time and decision time. Swanigan is virtually a lock for Big Ten player of the Year, First Team All-American, and the Karl Malone Award. He might be an Academic All-American. Some think he could be the National Player of the Year, an award named after a Purdue legend in John Wooden. That he is even in serious consideration is a testament to how good he has been. At the beginning of the year he was on the watch list, but it felt like more of a, “yeah, he is good, but Josh Hart and a few others are the real contenders”. Caleb has forced his way into the conversation with his play. He has been relentless to the point where we can look at his Rutgers game on Tuesday (12 points and 17 rebounds) and be like, “yeah, he didn’t really play that well”.

How absurd is that? It leads to crazy stats like this:

AND WE PRETTY MUCH TAKE THIS FOR GRANTED NOW! He does something like this and we’re to the point of, “Well yeah. We expected that.” How can you even EXPECT that each night? It has gotten so common that when the double-double is clinched, I do the following tweet:

The game I forgot to do it? Nebraska.

We lost. I am sorry.

Likely some time after April 3rd he will decide to head to the NBA. He will say goodbye to Purdue, but he is already an immortal. There is little doubt his name and number will be in the rafters once his time at Purdue is through, and he will forever be a member of the larger Purdue family. More importantly, he will serve as an inspiration to others for the odds he has overcome. Yes, I like him because he is a very, very good basketball player for my University. I truly admire him for the man he has become and for what he has earned.

We are proud to welcome him as a member of the Purdue family, forever.