The quality of the food wasn’t the main reason for Purdue coach Matt Painter’s tweet on the afternoon of May 19: “Had one of the best lunches I’ve ever had today on campus.”
That was the day Painter learned that the Boilermakers had landed Fort Wayne Homestead High School forward Caleb Swanigan, a consensus top-25 national recruit. With that, they went from good team to Big Ten title contender. The trio of the 6'9" Swanigan, 7'0" A.J. Hammons and 6'7" Vince Edwards should form one of the nation’s best frontlines.
“Very few teams in the country can play big,” Painter says. “Most of the time, your better players are guards. That’s what the game has evolved into. I think we’re going to be that traditional big team with Caleb playing the 4.”
All Big Ten predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
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Swanigan led Homestead to the Indiana Class 4A state title, the state’s largest class. He made an oral commitment to Michigan State before changing his mind and signing with Purdue. Painter says Swanigan’s skill set is such that he would be able to start if he were just 6-feet tall.
“His ability to pass and rebound will really help us,” Painter says. “We like the matchup with teams having to guard him with their second-best guy on the floor. We like that matchup every single night.”
But as highly touted as Swanigan is, Purdue’s best player figures to be Hammons, who broke through during his junior season and became the dominant post player most expected after an uneven first two years with the Boilermakers.
“I thought he was really consistent during those last two months, and hopefully he can build off that,” Painter says. “He’s always been big offensively, but I really liked what he showed between games. He developed some good habits. He showed some leadership ability.”
Swanigan’s arrival means that Edwards moves from power to small forward. He led Purdue in assists last season with 90, and the Boilermakers were 6–0 in games in which he was the leading scorer.
Purdue is so deep that 7'2" center Isaac Haas comes off the bench, even though he was one of 21 finalists for the Kyle Macy National Freshman of the Year Award last season. Basil Smotherman also had a good season coming off the bench but will have to battle for playing time in a loaded frontcourt.
No. 16 Purdue Boilermakers Facts & Figures
Last season: 21-13 (12-6 Big Ten)
Postseason: NCAA first round
Consecutive NCAAs: 1
Big Ten projection: 3
Postseason projection: NCAA Sweet 16
Here’s the good news: Rapheal Davis returns after being named the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year. At 6'5" and 217 pounds, he’s got the size to guard most of the top players in the league. Davis also stepped up offensively, averaging 12.2 points and 5.3 rebounds in conference games.
But there are question marks after that. Purdue struggled from the outside last season, finishing 12th in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting at 32.7 percent. Dakota Mathias and Kendall Stephens are the best returning shooters, and Painter expects them both to improve after being slowed by injuries last season. Freshman Ryan Cline will push for playing time.
Purdue might start a transfer with just one year of eligibility remaining at point guard for the second consecutive season. Jon Octeus gave the Boilermakers a huge boost after transferring from Colorado State during the 2014-15 season, and Johnny Hill will get a long look during preseason practice after moving in from Texas-Arlington. “If he could be as productive as Octeus,” Painter says, “that would be a real blessing.”
P.J. Thompson showed promise as a freshman and also is in the mix. Few Big Ten players will match his quickness.
Key Losses: G Jon Octeus
Top Players: G Rapheal Davis, G Kendall Stephens, F Vince Edwards, F Caleb Swanigan, C A.J. Hammons
Caleb Swanigan was the No. 4 center in the nation by the 247Sports Composite. Ryan Cline is an excellent shooter. Johnny Hill started 15 games at point guard for Texas-Arlington last season. Grant Weatherford was a two-way star in football for Hamilton Heights High School last fall. Grady Eifert is the brother of Cincinnati Bengals tight end and former Notre Dame standout Tyler Eifert.
This clearly looks to be Purdue’s best team since the JaJuan Johnson-E’Twaun Moore-Robbie Hummel era ended when Johnson and Moore finished their careers in 2011.
The combination of size and athletic ability on the frontline is impressive. Expect the Boilermakers to see a lot of zone from opposing teams because of that. If they develop into a good outside shooting team, watch out. They’ll be a Big Ten title contender and in line for a deep NCAA Tournament run.