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2017-18 Purdue Basketball: So Now What?

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I regret to inform you that Purdue basketball is still going to be good in 2017-18.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Purdue vs Iowa State James Lang-USA TODAY Sports

Caleb Swanigan is gone.

We knew he would be gone for 2017-18 and had come to terms with it when the season ended over two months ago. Still, as the NBA process played out that small amount of hope began to creep in. We knew he was gone. We wouldn’t fault him for leaving. He had nothing left to prove in college. Still, we started to see cracks. There was a chance that he would return. The falling draft position, a chance to dominate next year, and a weaker draft in 2018 all seemed to open the door a little more.

Yesterday there was palpable tension before eventual disappointment. Suddenly it wasn’t a sure thing, and visions of a preseason top 5 ranking and the most highly anticipated Purdue season maybe ever were dancing in our heads. “Come on, Biggie. One more year. You’ll be a first round pick and a legend.”

The announcement came at 5:34pm. As I said above, there was disappointment at first because that 2017-18 super team dream died, but in the end there was acceptance and even pride. We were proud that he was in the position to make that decision. Given his story and background, we can’t fault him one bit. He’ll go on to the NBA, be a pleasant surprise for whatever team picks him, have a lengthy career, and make his millions. We’ll eventually get a gift back and something will be named after him while his All-American banner will hang in the rafters forever. It was like closing a book after an unexpected epilogue.

So now what?

First, we know what the national media will do. They already did it with their “Way too early” rankings once the season was over in April. According to them, Indiana can lose three early entraints to the NBA and their coach, but still be a top 15 team. Purdue loses basically one guy (albeit an All-American), gets deeper with a respectable incoming class, but the #narrative is that Caleb Swanigan is all we had.

Well, the good news is that Purdue is still going to be a good basketball team in 2017-18. Sure, the expectations and hype that would have been there had Biggie returned won’t be as high, but this is going to be a solid basketball team few want to play.

Purdue Returns Four Senior Starters

If almost any other major conference champion returned four senior starters the media would be going nuts. If a mid-major returned four senior starters that had done what our guys have done they would be talked about as a dark horse Final Four contender. Purdue? Nah, we’re virtually ignored.

Vince Edwards and Isaac Haas have both passed the 1,000 point plateau in their careers. Edwards is probably going to be a preseason all-Big Ten pick and was listed on The Ringer as a strong 3 and D prospect. With Swanigan gone Vince is going to be “The Man”. Already a strong player, he is in line for a breakout season.

Haas is simply a force of nature. We have come to live with his defensive limitations, but he is a player that simply demands a double team on offense and cannot be stopped one-on-one. Is it really a bad thing to bring back a 1,000 point scorer that is shooting close to 58% in his career and he now won’t have another low block player to clog the lane offensively for the first time in his career?

Oh, and there is still P.J. Thompson and Dakota Mathias. Thompson is the calm, savvy point guard that picks his spots, rarely turns the ball over, shoots over 40% from three, and has a penchant for hitting a big basket when we absolutely need it. Mathias will likely pass 1,000 points in his career this coming season and for a good portion of 2016-17 he was threatening to shoot better than 50% from three. He is the consummate glue guy that you think isn’t doing a lot, then you look up and see he has 12 points on four threes, 7 assists, and 5 big rebounds. Oh, and he is a really good defender, too.

These guys have combined to score over 3,300 points in their careers and win 74 games plus a Big Ten championship. As a core, I will go to war with them any time.

Purdue’s Has Other Returning Strengths

The above four are a solid foundation anyone in America would kill for. Purdue only had an 8 man rotation last year, and two (Swanigan and Spike Albrecht) are gone. Carsen Edwards and Ryan Cline will be back, however.

Carsen had an excellent freshman season with 360 points scored as he adjusted to the college game. No imagine if he has a “Sophomore Leap”, as many players experience. He is more of a shoot first point guard than Thompson, but he does give opponents a different look, which is critical. The Edwardi (Edwardses?) of Vince and Carsen are Purdue’s most creative players. They are the best we have at creating their own shot and being pure scorers.

Then you have Cline. He is the ultimate “Never Leave the White Guy Open” guy. He has a history of saving Purdue when it needs saving (think about at Penn State this year). He is a 40%+ shooter from three who can be a starter if needed. Personally, I am fine with just bringing him off the bench and telling him to enjoy open looks.

Haas, Thompson, Cline, Mathias, and the Edwardi give Purdue almost 75% of its offense back in six guys. That’s a very good place to start from.

The Bench Will Be Deeper

As mentioned, Purdue only had an 8 man rotation last year, mostly out of necessity. By the end of the season we were down to only eight scholarship players. We were what we were, and other teams knew it. We couldn’t change matchups like we needed because the personnel just was not there. Sure, we could give a different look with Biggie at the five, but for the most part teams knew what they were going to get. Kansas ran away with the game by denying the entry pass to Haas and/or Swanigan and denying us a chance to play inside-out.

Now? Well, the bench should be deeper and allow for more versatility with 12 scholarship guys instead of 8. Eden Ewing comes in as a poor man’s Swanigan. The JuCo transfer basically picks up Caleb’s 4-year scholarship with the two years left on it. Swanigan was 6’9” 250, while Ewing is a leaner and more athletic 6’9” 215. Ewing was considered a top 5 JuCo prospect and Purdue landed him. He can rebound and shoot the three. He also might be a better defender than Biggie. I am certainly not expecting Caleb’s insane double-double numbers from Eden, but he will be an excellent, versatile player that can likely allow Purdue to have many of the small ball lineups it has had in the past.

Matt Haarms should also stretch the floor and give Purdue a different look. Do not discount the semester he had “redshirting” on campus this spring. He had a great opportunity to learn and since he can’t redshirt anymore we might as well use him. He is an inch taller and 45 pounds lighter than Haas, but he can actually step out and shoot a little. His ceiling is likely our own poor man’s version of Moe Wagner.

Then we have three other freshmen that can contribute at varying levels. Nojel Eastern is the big guard that many teams crave and a top 100 player. Aaron Wheeler is a rising 6’8” forward. Both guys are instant athletic upgrades for Purdue. Oh, and we have another 6’5” Indiana kid whose role is to go in and make wide open threes in Sasha Stefanovic.

Finally you have Jacquil Taylor. I know I am the only guy driving his bandwagon. The poor kid has lost three of his past five seasons of basketball due to injury and we really only have a great half against a truly awful Rutgers team to judge him by. Still, I think he can contribute. When healthy in high school he was well liked. He can also step out and shoot the three, mixing things up when has is not in there. If he can stay healthy (something we are required to say about him) we basically get a guy that has barely played, but already has three years in the system with us. I think he will be a very pleasant surprise.

Yes, we lose a great, great player in Caleb. Purdue will be deeper, however, and more athletic. Gone are the definite lineups of clogging the lane with two post players. When has is not in there we’re very likely going to have five guys on the floor that can all shoot well from three. Haarms, Ewing, and Taylor will have to take the Haas backup minutes as well as fill in many of Swanigan’s minutes, but at the very least we have options there. They give Purdue the ability to throw out different looks and with Ewing at least it is an upgrade in sheer athleticism.

This Team Will Have Time To Gel

The Taiwan trip is going to be huge for this team. Everyone except Haarms can actually play in the World University Games, and he can at least practice with the team in the lead up. More importantly, the newcomers (aside from probably Ewing) do not immediately have to play huge minutes. They can be complimentary players in year one, carving out roles and developing for the future while the seniors (plus Carsen and Cline) do the heavy lifting.

Versatility will be the new key with Purdue. I have long said that Purdue is at its best when the team functions better together than the sun of its parts. That will be tested this year. Purdue has a lot of really good college players and solid newcomers, but no superstar. There can be a benefit in that. We no longer feel like we have to force it to Biggie in clutch situations, and we already saw hints of that growth this past season. The comeback win at Maryland with Biggie on the bench was huge and showed that this team can work well without him.

That’s what I want to see from this team, and I think we will be pleasantly surprised because we have senior leadership that has been through the wars and knows how to function as a team. What is more dangerous: a team with a superstar you know is going to get the ball and can be double-teamed, or a team where all five players are dangerous at any moment because they function well together?

Purdue will be the latter in 2017-18. We will miss Swanigan, no doubt. You don’t take out a guy averaging 18.5-13.5-3 and NOT miss him. We’ll miss his ferocious rebounding, but that can be spread out among the team. We’ll miss his truly gifted passing as a big man, but overall Vince and Dakota are still great passers. We’ll miss his low post scoring, but as long as Haas can pass out of a double team or draw fouls we’ll be fine.

This is still going to be a top 25 team at minimum and the goals should still be the same: Stay in the top 25 all year, be in the Big Ten race all year, Get to the second weekend, and hope we have a better matchup this time.

It seems there is a surprise Final Four team every season now. South Carolina was 2017. Syracuse was 2016. Michigan State was 2015. Connecticut and Kentucky were 2014. Wichita State was 2013. That makes five straight years with a 7 seed or lower getting to the Final Four. Purdue will be better than a 7 seed in March. I guarantee it. Anything can happen in March, and we will still be there.