Despite losing Caleb Swanigan, Purdue producing like a team with top-10 potential

INDIANAPOLIS -- In college basketball, November brings questions and December should afford many answers. 

After a two-game losing streak in the Bahamas in the middle of November, Purdue seems like it's about figured itself out. This is a veteran team coming off a 27-win season and now, at 11-2 following its 82-67 win Saturday over Butler in the Crossroads Classic, is looking like it's capable of being a top-10 club. 

The Boilermakers, ranked 18th in the country back on Nov. 22, fell in overtime to then-unranked Tennessee. At the time, it seemed like a horrible loss. The next day, an L to Western Kentucky, and suddenly Purdue was emblematic of a Big Ten that was underperforming and lacking any real challenger to Michigan State

"I thought we were shooting the ball entirely too quick," Purdue coach Matt Painter said Saturday, reflecting on that 1-2 outing in the Bahamas. "The other team, we weren't making them work for things and really just trying to harp on our guys to push the basketball, take open rhythm threes, get to the rim, get a quick post-up. If not, execute. We went to a lot more sets because of it, so we kind of forced them. Tried to put up a lot of stop signs just to make them run sets and to make them be efficient on the offensive end."

Since the Battle 4 Atlantis, few teams -- if any, aside from Arizona State -- have looked better and compiled a sharper resumé than the Boilermakers. The shooting has improved as the team's grown stronger with a quickness. The acceleration to this came when Purdue followed up the 77-73 loss to WKU with an 89-64 thrashing of Arizona in the seventh-place game of the Battle 4 Atlantic. Then, back on the mainland, Purdue defeated Louisville on Nov. 28 before taking Maryland on the Terrapins' home floor three days later. Painter's team followed its Big Ten debut with a second straight league win by knocking off Northwestern on Dec. 3. 

It's been so good since. An average win margin of 16.3 points over the past seven games. The Boilermakers were never truly threatened by Butler on Saturday. So here's where things stand: Purdue's ranked No. 7 at KenPom.com and looks good enough and deep enough to win the Big Ten. Michigan State can no longer be considered an automatic for that conference's crown. Purdue has six wins vs. the KenPom top 60. No other team has more than four.

Purdue's schedule continues to help its cause, too. The Tennessee loss at the time was a surprise, but the Volunteers are 7-1 with their only loss coming against Villanova. Arizona hasn't dropped a game since it left the Bahamas. Good signs for Painter's guys. Not only do they look good, not only do they rate highly, but most teams on their schedule are turning out to be above average. That makes this next part all the more impressive: The Boilermakers rank 10th in offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency at KenPom.com.

Only No, 1, undefeated Villanova is better in both categories. 

"I think we learned from our mistakes," Purdue guard P.J. Thompson said of the team's mini turnaround over the past three weeks. "We know we can score the ball with anybody in the country. We can really score at a high level. But what's going to separate us and allow us to be really successful throughout the rest of the season and in the postseason is defense. I think we [shored] that up from when we were in the Bahamas because we knew we could outscore those teams. We didn't come ready to play defensively, and it kind of bit us. We really -- I mean, we've really toned it up defensively. I think we've gotten a lot better, as you guys can tell, throughout the season, and I think there's still room to improve."

The defense was tailor-made to stifle Butler. Purdue's more fascinating than you think because how it varies on both ends of the floor. It ranks 23rd in time of possession on offense, yet 341st on defense. Purdue wants to score quick and grind you to crumbs when it doesn't have the ball. That's why Butler was doomed. That's why Purdue is bust-proof. Maybe this team doesn't wind up as a No. 1, 2 or 3 seed, but it should remain in the polls for most if not all of the season to come. 

To be this good and well-rounded after losing Caleb Swanigan -- one of the three best players in college basketball last season, in my estimation -- is remarkable. 

How's Purdue been able to sustain this level of play and pick off wins against multiple future NCAA Tournament teams? Vincent Edwards' athleticism. Carsen Edwards' quietly reliable play and ever-improving defense. Dakota Mathias' A-grade on-ball defending on top of his 47-percent 3-point shooting. P.J. Thompson is averaging almost 1.4 points per shot. 

The only thing lacking is Swanigan's penchant for eating offensive boards. 

"We can't have lapses in terms of offensive rebounding," Painter told CBS Sports after Saturday's win. "We've got to do a better, more consistent job on the offensive glass. When we do that, and even when we don't shoot as well, we have success. I think that's such an important part to what we do. (A.J.) Hammons and Swanigan used to start together. So they were in the game together. So, not a lot of rebounds to go around then. Just trying to be able to get our team to do it by committee."

The Butler win was sweet, too, and long awaited. Purdue had dropped five straight to BU. 

"We're just happy we finally beat Butler," Painter said.  

More good press is likely coming as we hit Christmas and bound into the new year. The Boilermakers will be favored in each of their next four games. They're likely to be 15-2 come Jan. 9, when they play at Michigan. By then, a top-10 ranking seems inevitable. 

That Painter has been able to coach his team to this point -- without Swanigan -- is impressive. Pundits often discuss underrated teams and coaches to the point of being trite, but how many are as under-appreciated as Painter? He's in his 13th season and will be taking the Boilers to the Big Dance for the 10th time. There is no Player of the Year here, probably no All-American. Just a damn good team with a damn fine coach, and they've got a damn good chance at boxing Michigan State for the right to be the Big Ten's best. 

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his eighth season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics,... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories
    24/7 Scores, News, Highlights
    FREE ON ALL YOUR DEVICES