CARMEL – Life after Biggie leaves some things to be desired for Purdue University's basketball team.
It's quite a list, actually. Who's the leader? Who's the go-to guy? Who delivers the type of play Caleb “Biggie” Swanigan often provided – conjured from a mixture of skills, savvy and willpower that rises from deep inside?
Who's the Man?
“We could have four or five go-to guys,” senior guard Dakota Mathias said. “It just depends on any given night who's rolling, who's playing well. Biggie's not here anymore, so we've just got to play.”
The good news for Purdue is it has some extra time. The Boilermakers are playing as Team USA in the World University Games, leaving Sunday for Taipei, Taiwan, with a first game against Argentine on Aug. 20.
“It's great because we get to get ahead of the curve of most college teams,” senior forward Vincent Edwards said. “Yeah, they're playing tours and all that stuff, but we're actually playing for something that really means something – a gold medal.”
The first taste of international play – an appetizer of sorts – came with Team USA's 94-86 win over Team Canada in an exhibition game Friday at Carmel High School. The teams play again at 4 p.m. today at Lafayette Jefferson High School.
So with the trip comes time to figure out Life after Biggie. Swanigan, the Homestead High School alum, took his double-double lifestyle to the NBA, leaving double-digit deficits in points (18.5 per game) and rebounds (12.5 per game) in the Purdue lineup.
Purdue coach Matt Painter has been through this drill before, replacing a major player from a previous team. But Swanigan was something extra, a rare talent that doesn't come around every season.
Chances are, Mathias will prove prophetic. There will be various go-to guys. Instead of Biggie, it'll be a Big Amalgam.
There will be nights when an Edwards lights things up, whether it's Vincent or sophomore guard Carsen Edwards. Both made some big plays Friday. Carsen scored 14 points with three assists. Vincent scored 13 points with nine rebounds. Both made mistakes. Both looked like players often do in August, a long way from March Madness.
Sometimes, the go-to guy might be long-range shooters Mathias, P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline. All three are capable of finding a rhythm that turns three-point leads into nine, nine into 18, and 18 into “start the bus.” They didn't find that rhythm Friday, combining for 2-of-11 from three-point range.
Yet, down the stretch, they delivered some steals, some lock-down defense and even some rebounds off pure hustle.
Speaking of defense, Swanigan's inside presence might not be missed as much if 7-foot-2 Isaac Haas (20 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks) gets the kind of supplemental help that junior Jacquil Taylor, finally healthy, provided with four blocks.
Some of the best Purdue/Team USA plays came when Canada cut the lead to one-point with 3:08 to play.
“That was our best stretch of defense, when it mattered, which is a good sign,” Painter said. “Jacquil came in and gave us some quality minutes, got a couple big blocks. Isaac had a couple big blocks. We had some key rebounds on loose balls and were able to convert them and make some free throws.”
Purdue has some youngsters working to break into the Biggie-less lineup, too. Freshmen Aaron Wheeler (eight points, five rebounds) and Nojel Eastern (seven points and at least two crowd-wowing moves) showed glimpses.
Then there's Grady Eifert, a junior walk-on from Bishop Dwenger, who shares at least one attribute with Swanigan: work ethic.
Eifert played eight minutes Friday, posting four points, three steals and two rebounds.
“Grady outworks everybody every day in practice,” Mathias said. “He crashes the glass hard every possession. He plays defense. He hits open shots. He's a typical Purdue guy.”
Painter has a wide-ranging mix of players, and with the World University Games trip, some extra time to figure out how best to mesh those players together.
“It takes a while,” Painter said. “Sometimes you have to go through your non-conference (to gel as a team.) Tonight was great because when adversity set in, we played our best. There at the end, the guys played really well. That's a good sign.”
It'll take some time, but time is on the Boilermakers' side thanks to the World University Games. Let's call it the Life after Biggie Tour.
This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Reggie Hayes at firstname.lastname@example.org.