Dienhart: Purdue looks primed to win Big Ten title

Dienhart: Purdue looks primed to win Big Ten title

The finish to the Big Ten season couldn’t be framed any more perfectly. Two weeks remain. Two teams—Purdue and Wisconsin–are tied for first place with four games left for each squad, with Maryland just one game off the pace.

Who’s going to win it? Purdue looks like the best choice.

The Boilermakers and Badgers each boast an 11-3 conference record. But make no mistake about it: Purdue is the best team in the Big Ten.

Purdue’s Big Ten resume glistens. Matt Painter’s No. 14 AP squad is 1-0 vs. Wisconsin; 1-0 vs. Maryland; 1-0 vs. Northwestern; 2-0 vs. Michigan State, four of the league’s top squads. No other Big Ten team has as many quality league wins.

And no Big Ten squad is playing better as we take the wraps off the penultimate week of the season. The Boilermakers have won five in a row and eight of their last nine, the lone loss coming Jan. 29 at Nebraska. This team is rolling. And, it’s thinking big. Could it be a Final Four squad in addition to winning the Big Ten? Yep.

The remaining schedule appears to favor Purdue over Wisconsin, as well, even though three of the Boilermakers’ final four are away from Mackey Arena. Purdue plays at Penn State on Tuesday and at Michigan on Saturday. Then, Purdue finishes at home vs. Indiana and at Northwestern. Wisconsin’s final four games are at Ohio State on Thursday and at Michigan State on Sunday before closing at home vs. Iowa and vs. Minnesota. The Badgers are scuffling a bit, losing two in a row before toppling Maryland on Sunday.

Purdue probably should be running away with the league title if not for stumbling earlier this season in confounding losses at Iowa and at Nebraska, as well as an overtime home defeat to Minnesota. Truth be told: The Boilermakers could be unbeaten in the Big Ten. The team’s other losses are high quality: vs. Villanova in Mackey Arena and at Louisville. Despite those three bad Big Ten defeats, Purdue still controls its destiny. Pretty amazing.

Some envisioned Purdue being here. Heck, this may be Painter’s best team—at least it is offensively. There is an array of options led by the likely Big Ten Player of the Year in Caleb Swanigan, a double-double machine. Game in and game out, Swanigan delivers like no one else.

“I told Matt (Painter) before the game that they might be playing the most consistent basketball in the Big Ten and that they also are one of the most consistent teams in the nation,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said after watching “Biggie” notch his 23rd double-double with 24 points and 15 rebounds in an 80-63 win vs. the Spartans on Saturday in Mackey Arena. “Their defense is getting a little better.”

Swanigan is the rare blue-collar superstar, laying it on the line each game out and giving a consistent effort. Long story short: Swanigan is a coach’s dream and everybody’s All-American. And he will leave West Lafayette as an all-time great and the program’s best player since Glenn Robinson’s two-year run from 1992-94 that culminated in the Big Dog winning every national player of the year honor in 1993-94.

The current Purdue star isn’t on the level of Robinson. Not many are. No shame in that. He was one of the greatest players in Big Ten and college hoops history. Robinson led the nation in scoring in 1993-94, averaging 30.3 points to go with 11.2 rebounds. Even better: The 6-7, 240-pound Robinson led Purdue to a 29-5 mark, the Big Ten title and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tourney, where the Boilers fell in the Elite Eight to Duke. He then turned pro and was the No. 1 overall draft choice by the Bucks. Big Dog is an icon.

Swanigan has carved out his own all-time great niche in Purdue annals. But, his legacy won’t glow quite as brightly unless he can deliver a Big Ten title–or a deep run in March. For a place that likes to think of itself as a “basketball school,” the Boilermakers have just one Big Ten regular-season crown since 1996, the last of Gene Keady’s threepeat. That championship came in 2009-10, as the beloved trio of E’Twaun Moore, JaJuan Johnson and Robbie Hummel led the way on a 29-6 club that made the Sweet 16 a second season in succession.

The program also hasn’t won an NCAA tourney game since 2012, missing the Big Dance in 2013 and 2014 and suffering stupefying first-round losses each of the last two seasons–first to Cincinnati, then to Arkansas-Little Rock. It was maddening, as the Boilermakers blew late leads in each game.

And Purdue hasn’t been to the Final Four since 1980, when Lee Rose took the program to college basketball’s holy grail behind Joe Barry Carroll, who would be the No. 1 pick in the 1980 draft. Ancient history, right?

Now, can Swanigan deliver Purdue to an accomplishment it hasn’t seen in years in this high-pressure crunch-time environment over the next two weeks? If so, it would dress up an already spectacular resume. This is when superstars play their best and carry their team to wins … and championships. Double-doubles are nice. Banners hanging from rafters are better.

Sure, it’s not all on Swanigan’s broad shoulders. The 6-9, 250-pound sophomore is a top candidate for national player of the year, averaging 18.9 points and 13.0 rebounds for the 22-5 Boilermakers. Swanigan forms an intimidating inside duo with 7-2 Isaac Haas. And Painter has surrounded his brawny Boilers with a plethora of marksmen in Dakota Mathias, Ryan Cline and P.J. Thompson. Those players are complemented by the slashing of Vincent Edwards on the wing and the precocious play of freshman Carsen Edwards, an explosive guard with skills not seen on Purdue’s red-brick campus very often over the last 50 years.

Add it all up, and Purdue should be able to seal its worthiness as the Big Ten’s best, while Swanigan could get the additional validation of being called a “champion” to further cement his already legendary status.

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Email Tom Dienhart using the form below.

Tom Dienhart, BTN.com Senior Writer

About Tom Dienhart: BTN.com senior writer Tom Dienhart is a veteran sports journalist who covers Big Ten football and men's basketball for BTN.com and BTN TV. Find him on Twitter and Facebook, and send him questions to his weekly mailbag.

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