Caleb Swanigan is absolutely one of the two or three best college basketball players in the nation. He is the absolute best big man in college basketball. That isn’t a debate topic. Is he an NBA player? A first round pick? Those conversations are more interesting, but they can wait. What’s fascinating to watch now is his transformation from a mistake-prone freshman to basketball destroyer sophomore to complete robot of destruction in March with just one goal in mind - leaving your NCAA bracket in utter destruction.
He is no longer just a great basketball player, he’s a basketball terminator.
And he’s not interested in how great he’s been. He’s not interested in what he’s done. The only thing he sees is the team in front of him.
When Caleb collected his 27th double-double of the season last night in Purdue’s first NCAA tournament win since 2012, he allowed the good feelings to flow for about as long as the flavor in a stick of gum.
“It’s important [to win], but after today it’s not important and it’s the next game.”
Sitting there, I’ll tell you something, there wasn’t an ounce of joy throughout the entire press conference. No emotion. No fun. No sense of accomplishment. The only thing he sees is the future, his opponent, the destruction he knows is coming. (Is there a hint of show about this? Of course, but Caleb has shown more than anyone, you are what you make yourself into.)
And he’s turned himself into a movie villain. He doesn’t care who is on the screen or where the game is or what stage it’s on, his focus is laser. We saw this even before the tournament started, when he was talking about Vermont.
Q: They don’t have a lot of size, at least looking at the roster. What do you see on film in terms of things maybe you can take advantage of around the basket?
CALEB SWANIGAN: Same thing as any game. I’m going to do the same thing. Really doesn’t change how I approach the game.
In bad guy code he’s basically saying: I’m going to destroy you, like I always do, it doesn’t matter who you are.
Here’s how he answered a question about what it means to him to be named the Big Ten Player of the year just before the tournament.
CALEB SWANIGAN: It means a lot. Really, just as I said before, I’m just focused on Vermont, haven’t spent much time thinking about any accolades. I’m just focusing now when it’s the next game.
He’s using the tone you use when talking to a loved one about a pair of socks they gave you four birthdays ago. What are you doing still talking about that? I’ve got games to win here.
His tone isn’t even annoyed. That implies he has some kind of emotional investment in the question, that it even touches him at all. It doesn’t. The remarkable thing about Caleb Swanigan isn’t the numbers or his physical transformation, it’s his work ethic, his will to conquer.
When Swanigan committed to Purdue, it was a revelation for the program. He was a 5-star recruit, the ninth best player in the nation according to ESPN100. He wasn’t just a really good basketball player. Caleb Swanigan was a program changer. The first sign that Purdue was stepping into the national spotlight.
In Indiana, somewhere, near some corn field, there is a slab of cracking concrete, a hoop, a circle of pig skin, bouncing up and down, brushing lightly against fingertips before slamming into a palm, and then back down again. The sound of swishes is as soothing as the clank of rim is violent.
In Mackey Arena, under the clock by the tunnel, there’s four words: “Time to Play Hard.” The Paint Crew, Purdue’s ever faithful student section, keeps track of turnovers with a devotion usually reserved for break-away dunks.
You want to hear Mackey Arena at its loudest? Wait for Purdue to force a shot-clock violation.
Basketball isn’t the same in West Lafayette as it is everywhere else. The grit matters more than the gold, and gold itself is meant to be worn with black. We don’t need pretty, we need hard.
Caleb Swanigan, before he was valued by every top program in the country, was a 300+ pound homeless kid living in Utah with seemingly no value to anyone. Playing hard is nothing to a kid who had to make himself hard just to survive. Hard isn’t a slogan on the wall he reads as he settles in for another rep of dead lifts, it’s a way of life, it’s the metal of his bones.
He came to West Lafayette as one of the most highly touted recruits of the school’s history. Recruits require you to reach into the future, to see what they could become.
For Purdue, they’re hoping Caleb Swanigan is something of a prophet and that the rest of his team listens to his sermons: there is only the next workout, the next practice, the next opponent. For two years Purdue has run out of next games too early, but behind another bruising performance from their big man, they’re a game away from the Sweet 16.
It’s okay to think about the next game because Caleb Swanigan comes from the future. He has no time for the history he’s making, not yet.