Focus on big men leading up to No. 16 Purdue at Indiana

Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports

Focus on big men leading up to No. 16 Purdue at Indiana

(AP) A big game featuring big people.

Simply put, when No. 16 Purdue plays at Indiana on Thursday night in Assembly Hall, three of the nation’s best post players will be on display in one of college basketball’s best rivalries.

Purdue (19-5, 8-3 Big Ten) features the likely Big Ten Player of the Year in Caleb Swanigan, a 6-foot-8 power forward who is averaging 19.1 points and 12.8 rebounds, and 7-2 center Isaac Haas, who is averaging 13.1 points and 5.1 rebounds.

Indiana (15-9, 5-6) will counter with 6-10 center Thomas Bryant (13.1 points, 7.1 rebounds) when the schools meet for the 205th time in a series the Boilermakers lead, 115-89.

While Indiana coach Tom Crean may have the services of high scoring guard James Blackmon, sidelined recently by a leg injury, the Hoosiers know they have to limit Swanigan, who has an NCAA-leading 20 double-doubles and has been selected Big Ten Player of the Week five times.

“He is playing with such a relentless attitude and relentless spirit,” Crean said. “He can shoot the ball, he can drive it and he demands a lot of attention. He plays so hard and is a wrecking crew on the glass, and he is getting to the glass.”

Haas said Tuesday that he and Swanigan are eager to battle Bryant.

“Thomas is a really talented player,” Haas said. “After watching film, you can tell he definitely has improved a lot from last year, but so have we. We have to step it up and guard him and force him to guard us.

“I love the challenge. You come to schools like this to have the opportunity play against excellent players like Bryant and prove yourself that you are a great player, too. You want to prove you can guard people like him and score against people like him. He is a very versatile, mobile big who can shoot threes. He has a good 15-footer and can drive the ball.”

Swanigan said there is a more important goal than facing Bryant.

“I am just focused on winning the game,” Swanigan said. “It’s not about an individual matchup. It’s about a win or a loss. But you also want to play against elite players and elite competition. I like Thomas’ game. He always has played hard. He has been that type of player since high school.”

As anyone who has an interest in this rivalry knows, it’s not just another game.

“It’s a huge competition, and you develop that hatred for the other team — not for the players — but for that university,” Haas said. “It means a lot. You put a lot of energy and effort into practice. Then, you have to come into the game with your best shot.

“You are going to be on the road in one of the best environments in the Big Ten. You have to bring your A Game.”

Crean agrees.

“It’s not going to be for the faint-hearted,” Crean said. “If you don’t like contact or don’t want to put your body on the line, it’s going to be hard. We know what Purdue’s attitude is going to be coming into this game.

“No matter who we are — whether James is back or not — we have to be at a high level of intensity. This cannot be a game where we have a lot of empty possessions and try to do things that aren’t there.”

Swanigan, who likely will be in the NBA next season, is 0-1 against the Hoosiers. He would like to change that Thursday.

“This game means a lot,” Swanigan said. “It would mean a lot to them by getting back on track by beating us. Getting a win against a ranked opponent would be good for them because it could help them get into the NCAA Tournament. For us, it’s about following a big win at Maryland with another big game.”

Purdue coach Matt Painter’s team has won at Ohio State at Michigan State and at Maryland, but this is Indiana in Bloomington.

“It’s really no different in your preparation as a coach,” Painter said. “What is different is playing on the road, no matter how many times you win or lose. When you are on the road, it’s somebody else’s environment.”

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