East Lansing — Caleb Swanigan will be at Breslin Center tonight, a place he once was pledged to play all of his home games.
It didn’t work out that way, of course. The 6-foot-9, 250-pounder from Fort Wayne, Indiana, committed to Michigan State and coach Tom Izzo in early April of 2015 only to decommit a few weeks later and by the middle of May he’d made the choice to attend Purdue.
He would have been in the same class with Deyonta Davis. Instead, he had a solid season for the Boilermakers last year before deciding to wait on jumping to the NBA. It’s turned out to be a good decision. Swanigan has been one of the most productive big men in college basketball, leading the nation in rebounding at 12.5 a game as well as double-doubles with 16.
He’s also second in the Big Ten in scoring, averaging 18.5 points a game, and is shooting 45 percent from 3-point range.
Tonight, Swanigan will bring that production to East Lansing for the first time along with the 20th-ranked Boilermakers in a crucial game for the Spartans, who have lost three of four.
“I think we have our hands full,” Izzo said on Monday.
And the biggest reason is Swanigan, however, Izzo doesn’t spend a whole lot of time wondering what if. Instead, he’s been impressed by the jump Swanigan has made from a season ago when he struggled to find his place next to fellow big men Isaac Haas and then-senior A.J. Hammons.
“It’s not as clogged up in there and I think Biggie has understood, don’t worry about what position you play, just play whatever position you’re playing to the fullest of your ability,” Izzo said. “All of a sudden you can step out and hit a 3, you can put the ball on the floor. But he’s a load to score in there and I think last year people got in each other’s way a little bit.”
That hasn’t been happening this year as the Boilermakers are coming off a stretch of four wins out of five games, including a victory over Wisconsin.
Swanigan has been the catalyst and he’ll be especially challenging for the Spartans to contain. Michigan State has been thin up front all season and will be undersized against the Boilermakers with 6-8 Nick Ward and 6-6 Kenny Goins counted on in the post.
That will put extra pressure on Miles Bridges, Michigan State’s 6-7 wing that is playing primarily at power forward. He knows Swanigan well and understands the challenge the Spartans face.
“Caleb is a great player and I know him personally,” Bridges said. “It’s gonna be a battle. He’s a worker, can rebound the ball really well and that is what I’ve been struggling on, boxing people out and getting rebounds, so he’s really gonna test me.”
While the Breslin crowd might have some fun getting on Swanigan, Izzo insists there’s never been any animosity since Swanigan decided to not play at Michigan State.
“I’ve been a fan of his, I really have been,” Izzo said. “He made a decision that was best for him. And he and his people were smart enough to stay another year, because I think that is the best thing that’s happened to him. He’s matured, he’s not worried about all other things. He doesn’t seem to be affected by, ‘I gotta be a 3, a 4 — I’m a basketball player.’ And he’s improved.”
While the fact Swanigan is playing at Breslin for the first time will draw plenty of attention, Michigan State has bigger things to worry about. Aside from containing Swanigan, the Spartans will have to improve dramatically on the defensive end over the last two games.
Purdue will make that difficult. Outside of Swanigan, the Boilermakers are also getting solid guard play as freshman Carsen Edwards is averaging 10.6 points a game while Dakota Mathias is shooting 47.2 percent from 3-point range.
Slowing them down will take a more complete effort, something Michigan State hasn’t had recently. On Monday, the same refrain was back as Bridges and Tum Tum Nairn talked about playing “a full 40 minutes.”
“I just feel like we have to get to a level where we play at the same level,” Nairn said. “It goes with being consistent and focused and coming ready to play. It’s the next step for us and something we need to do.”
Doing so against the Boilermakers would be a sign things are starting to come together for the young Spartans as a home game with Michigan looms on Sunday.
As Izzo pointed out, it’s a big week. But he still believes he has the right makeup on his roster to have the Spartans in the picture late in the season.
“We are working morning, noon and night at getting better,” Izzo said. “We’ve got a good team. I don’t have anybody in trouble. I don’t have any problems. I just have the problem of not winning enough games and not getting players better fast enough.
“But they are working on it; we are working on it. I will continue to do that and rest-assured that somewhere this masochistic believes that I’m going to have the last laugh and it’s not going to be funny.”
Caleb Swanigan by the numbers
12.5: Rebounds per game, which leads the nation.
16: Double-doubles, a number that is also tops in the country. He is six behind Michigan State’s Draymond Green, who had the most of any Big Ten player since 2009.
4: Games Swanigan has recorded at least 20 points and 20 rebounds. No other player in the nation has had more than one this season.
18.5: Points per game, which leads the Big Ten.
No. 20 Purdue at Michigan State
Tip-off: Tuesday, 7 p.m., Breslin Center, East Lansing
TV/radio: ESPN2/WJR 760
Records: Purdue 16-4, 5-2 Big Ten; Michigan State 12-8, 4-3
Outlook: Purdue enters the game having one four of its last five while Michigan State has lost three of four. … All three meetings the last seasons have been decided by six points or less. … Michigan State hasn’t lost at home to Purdue since 2011, winning three straight since then.