As the Gavitt Games begin Monday night with Villanova heading to Indiana to face Purdue, our friends at Hammer and Rails were nice enough to answer some of our questions about the Boilermakers.
Big East Coast Bias: So... Caleb Swanigan (23 points and 20 rebounds in Purdue’s season-opening win against McNeese State), huh? Seriously though, even against a bad team did you ever expect to see a 20-20 game out of him?
Travis Miller, Hammer and Rails: It was a bit shocking, but not really. Swanigan is an excellent rebounder and led the big Ten in that category last season as freshman. He is pretty much a terror when the ball comes off the rim. At one point Friday night I tweeted that if I had to throw a baby from a burning building I would trust Caleb to rebound it. That’s how good he is on the glass.
I think more so he played within himself. Last year he tended to step out and show he could hit the three a little more. Friday night he played near the basket, got a lot of second chance points, and basically controlled everything within five feet of the basket. If he stops trying to impress NBA scouts with his jumper and starts concentrating on just cleaning the glass and dominating inside he is going to be virtually unstoppable.
BECB: Aside from Swanigan, are there any takeaways from the big victory over McNeese that you think can help the Boilermakers against ‘Nova?
TM: It was good to see Isaac Haas and Swanigan stay out of foul trouble. Their top backup, Jacquil Taylor, is injured yet again with a stress fracture in his foot that required surgery and is out indefinitely. He wasn’t going to be a critical piece, but I was looking for him to be a guy who could play if there was foul trouble and could give the other guys a 5-10 minute breather every night. Haas can sometimes get called for some cheap fouls simply because he is such a big guy and officials assume he fouled when really, opponents mostly bounce off of him. He was excellent offensively and stayed out of foul trouble, which we will need this year.
BECB: Villanova's tallest player is Darryl Reynolds at 6'9. Could this be an opportunity for Isaac Haas to be a potential difference maker in this game, or is there another X-Factor on the Boilermakers that Nova fans should be watching out for?
TM: Haas is a 7’2” center that is close to 300 pounds of sculpted muscle. He is going to be an offensive mismatch for virtually every team in America even if it was just him. When Swanigan and Vince Edwards as the forwards around him it makes things even more dangerous. You can’t double team him with two bigs because Edwards and Swanigan are so good offensively. There are very few players that can play him straight up.
The biggest difference is that he is not the defender A.J. Hammons was. Hammons just had superior shot blocking instincts and he could clean up a lot of mistakes for Purdue. He was like having a 7-foot eraser that stopped everything within 5 feet of the basket. Haas is big, but he is not nearly the defender Hammons was. He is probably a little better offensively, however.
An X-factor to look out for is Basil Smotherman. He is one of Purdue’s more athletic players, but redshirted last season after playing two years because there was a logjam of players in front of him and he wouldn’t get many minutes. He was also suspended against McNeese State, so Monday night will be his first competitive game in a year and a half. Basil is a good defender, can make the “wow” plays offensively that many others cannot, and he can play either the three or the 4 if Purdue goes small. Having not played in a year in a half, I am not sure what we will see, but he was a top 100 recruit when he came to Purdue and played extensively with some good moments in his first two years.
BECB: Who is a player on the Wildcats you could see giving Purdue a hard time in Monday's game?
TM: Jalen Brunson and virtually anyone in the backcourt. Purdue’s Achilles heel last season was its struggles against the full court press because when its guards were pressured, they panicked. P.J. Thompson is back and is steady, if not spectacular, but Spike Albrecht is still playing with a new team after transferring from Michigan and Carsen Edwards is a true freshman (who looked VERY good against McNeese). I want to see Purdue handle defensive pressure and defend the perimeter better. If it can do that, we’re going to have a special year.
BECB: What's your prediction for the game?
TM: It’s going to be interesting. Purdue has lost only twice in Mackey Arena in the last two years. Once was in the 2014-15 season to Maryland. The other was last season to Iowa when the Boilers completely collapsed in the second half after leading big at halftime. When Mackey is rolling at full tilt you can often see teams wilt with the noise and the energy.
That said, I remember a very similar game during the 2008-09 season. That team with JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore, and Robbie Hummel as sophomores had very high expectations and got rewarded with Duke in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge. Mackey was amped that night, but the Blue Devils had the poise to survive the early energy, take the crowd out, and win going away.
That’s what I can see happening here. Villanova is the champ for a reason. They’re really, really good and definitely worthy of the hype that they could repeat. They won’t be afraid. If Purdue wins this, it is going to send our expectations for the year sky high. If Villanova wins, it is just another big game they have won. One of many.
I don’t think Villanova will get shaken. I have seen teams get shaken by Mackey, but the rare teams that do not are special teams, and I think Villanova is one such team.