‘Biggie’ Swanigan looks to bigger stage to showcase his improvement

Caleb Swanigan and fourth-seeded Purdue are in position to make the school's deepest NCAA Tournament run since 2010.
Marc Lebryk/USA TODAY Sports

When NBA scouts critiqued Caleb Swanigan’s weaknesses last spring, he got right to work.

Swanigan committed himself to a workout program that was designed to improve his body, extend his shooting range and become a better all-around player.

It also helped the sophomore power forward became a stronger leader in the locker room, emerge as the runaway choice as Big Ten Player of the Year and put fourth-seeded Purdue in position to make its deepest NCAA Tournament run since 2010.

“I feel like I’m a lot better player than I was a year ago,” Swanigan said. “You’ve got to get into a routine that you can do, and I found one. I get up, get in the gym, get shots up, work on the dribble, do cardio for like an hour, go to practice and shoot after practice.”

The 6-foot-9, 250-pound Swanigan is a basketball junkie at heart who honed his skills by becoming a workaholic. He makes an estimated 400 shots each day. He doesn’t bother to count the misses.

But he wasn’t always a muscle man.

Because of a voracious appetite for desserts, he tipped the scales at about 360 pounds just before the start of eighth grade. Classmates started calling him “Biggie,” a nickname that has stuck with him though the meaning has clearly changed after one of the greatest seasons in Purdue history. Swanigan’s six conference player of the week awards this season were one more than former No. 1 overall draft pick Glenn Robinson had in 1994. It’s second in league history to Evan Turner (seven, 2010).

The Big Ten’s rebounding champ (12.6 per game) also finished second in the conference in scoring at 18.5 points and is the only Division I player to average more than 18 points and 12 rebounds this season.

He leads the nation with 26 double-doubles and can break the Big Ten single-season record against 13th-seeded Vermont on Thursday in Milwaukee. His shooting percentage has jumped from 46.1 percent to 53.4 percent while his 3-point percentage, one specific area the scouts discussed, has gone from 29.2 percent to 43.1 percent.

Swanigan also led the Boilermakers (25-7) to their first outright conference title since 1996.

“What Biggie is doing numbers-wise this year is just out of control,” said 24-year-old guard Spike Albrecht, who played with four future NBA players on Michigan’s most recent Final Four team. “I remember when Trey (Burke) averaged 17 points and seven assists, and people were saying it was the best since Magic Johnson was at Michigan State. But Biggie’s double-doubles and 30-20 games are things you’ve never seen before.”

Defenders who spent last season backing off Swanigan on 3-pointers didn’t dare try it again this season. When facing double teams all season, Swanigan quickly passed the ball to open teammates. And teams that once got Swanigan out of sync with foul trouble in 2015-16 found a more polished player who avoided foul trouble on most nights and still managed to play his game.

Not surprisingly, the awards have poured in and he’s established himself as a contender for national player of the year.

“He is one of those guys who can dominate a game without scoring,” said coach Matt Painter, a former teammate of Robinson’s. “That’s a really good statement for a guy who doesn’t block shots. Big men usually dominate a game with rebounding and blocking shots. He is a very cerebral player who understands what is going on. When he just lets things come to him, he is a much more efficient player.”

But even as his NBA career nears, Indiana’s 2015 Mr. Basketball winner has some unfinished business.

The plan to follow up Purdue’s regular-season title with a Big Ten Tourney crown was derailed by an overtime loss to eventual champion Michigan in Friday’s quarterfinals. And nobody has to tell Swanigan that the Boilermakers haven’t reached the Sweet 16 since 2010 or been to the Final Four since 1980.

He knew it when he switched his commitment from Michigan State to Purdue.

And he’s working to end those droughts every bit as hard as he’s been fine-tuning his game.

“I came here because I wanted to become a better player,” Swanigan said before turning to the postseason struggles. “I knew it had been 30 or 40 years since their last Final Four. It’s been a long time. That was my goal coming here, to bring Purdue a Final Four.”