What made Purdue’s 22-point victory over Iowa on Wednesday even more impressive is that the Boilermakers ran away with the Big Ten men’s basketball opener without their talented frontcourt dominating.
Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas averaged a combined 32 points per game in nonconference play this year.
Those two combined for only four points combined on 2-for-7 shooting in the first half against the Hawkeyes, but Purdue still had a 24-point halftime advantage.
That’s flat out scary.
Odds are Swanigan and Haas won’t struggle like that again Sunday for the No. 15 Boilermakers (12-2, 1-0) vs. the Gophers (12-2, 0-1) at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind.
One of the biggest concerns for Gophers coach Richard Pitino is how his foul-prone frontcourt will handle the most formidable inside tandem in the Big Ten.
“Very, very tough opponent,” Pitino said. “Haas and Swanigan will play in the NBA. They’re big, they’re talented, always well coached, and always tough.”
What makes Swanigan and Haas so physically imposing is that they not only have size and length (Haas is 7-foot-2 and Swanigan is 6-9 with a 7-3 wingspan), but they have girth as well.
Haas is the heaviest player in the Big Ten at 290 pounds, but he reportedly has only 8 percent body fat. Swanigan is a beast inside, but he’s leaner after losing 10 pounds to get down to 250.
“I feel like I’m more mobile and I changed my game to be able to move around more,” Swanigan said. “It was going to take time. I knew that last year. I feel like I’ve given myself time and I feel like I just got better and better.”
Swanigan is clearly a different player since his freshman season. He had 21 points and 21 rebounds vs. Western Illinois and 32 points and 20 rebounds vs. Norfolk State in back-to-back games entering Big Ten play. He joined Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley, Tim Duncan and DeJuan Blair as the only Division I players with multiple 20-point, 20-rebound games in a season in the past 20 years.
Swanigan, who averages 17.8 points and a conference-high 12.4 rebounds per game, is clearly the favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year.
Michigan State center Nick Ward isn’t in the conversation yet for top player in the conference, but he nearly fouled out the Gophers’ entire frontcourt in Tuesday’s 75-74 overtime victory at Williams Arena.
Ward had 22 points and nine rebounds. The 6-8, 260-pound freshman singlehandedly outplayed the Gophers big men defending him. Reggie Lynch, Bakary Konate and Eric Curry had just nine points and 13 fouls combined.
“When Reggie got in foul trouble, it was a huge difference in the type of swagger Ward had when Reggie wasn’t guarding him and being too passive,” sophomore Jordan Murphy said. “Him being in foul trouble puts more of a load on [Curry] and [Konate], but you’ve got to play hard with those two.”
Murphy had his fifth double-double Tuesday with 12 points and 21 rebounds, the most rebounds for a Gophers player since Jim Brewer had 22 rebounds in 1972.
Lynch was supposed take pressure off Murphy to compete physically. But the 6-10, 260-pound center was held to three points and three rebounds in 11 minutes before fouling out vs. Michigan State.
“Great defense is doing it without fouling,” Pitino said. “He’s got to get better at that. That’s been an issue for Reggie I know most of his career.”
The two Gophers losses this season have been in games when their frontcourt was outplayed. The size and length of 7-1 Michael Ojo and 6-11 Jonathan Isaac combined for 26 points and 18 rebounds in Florida State’s 75-67 victory Nov. 28 in Tallahassee. Lynch, Konate, Curry and Murphy combined to score just 24 points on 4-for-15 shooting.
The Gophers talked about the Florida State loss preparing them size-wise to face Purdue.
Murphy and company know they need to get tougher Sunday to have a chance to compete with Purdue’s Haas and Swanigan.
“Obviously, they’re very talented,” Murphy said. “They’ll be a handful.”