Big Ten

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

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USA TODAY

What does Caleb Swanigan's departure for NBA mean for Purdue and the 2018 Big Ten title race?

Caleb Swanigan, unsurprisingly, is heading to the NBA.

Last season’s Big Ten Player of the Year announced Wednesday that he’ll pass up the final two seasons of his NCAA eligibility for a paying gig at the professional level, an awesome opportunity for a kid who battled obesity and homelessness to become one of the best basketball players in the country.

But Swanigan’s departure from West Lafayette means a heck of a lot to the Big Ten.

Without the league’s most dominant big man, what becomes of Purdue’s chances at winning a conference title? Similarly, with a weakened — though still strong — group of Boilermakers, what does the Big Ten race look like going into 2017-18?

First, Purdue. Matt Painter’s program is plenty healthy, and while there’s no doubt that losing Swanigan is a big deal, the Boilers got some really good news, too, Wednesday when Vincent Edwards announced he’ll be returning for his senior season. Seven-footer Isaac Haas also made the decision to return to West Lafayette, meaning the towering frontcourt hasn’t been completely decimated just because tha man called “Biggie” is gone.

Purdue will also return Carsen Edwards, who had an impressive freshman campaign, and Dakota Mathias, a terrific defender and 3-point shooter. Two more important pieces — P.J. Thompson and Ryan Cline — are back, as well. And Painter will welcome in freshman Nojel Eastern, a highly touted guard from Evanston.

So the Boilers are still in very good shape. There will be a big magnifying glass on Haas, who despite his physical attributes hasn’t always found consistent on-court success. But there have been plenty of flashes of brilliance from the big man. A big step forward in his game would go a long way in easing the blow of losing Swanigan and could keep Purdue as one of the frontrunners for a conference title.

That brings us to the Big Ten race. Ever since Miles Bridges, the conference’s reigning Freshman of the Year, announced he’d be returning to Michigan State for his sophomore season, the Spartans have been the near-unanimous favorite. Only something like Swanigan deciding to stay at Purdue could’ve changed that. And with Swanigan expectedly heading to the NBA, Michigan State remains the preseason pick to win the conference crown.

Like any good year in the Big Ten, though, there will be challengers.

But Michigan State is the popular choice to win it because of Tom Izzo’s insane 2016 recruiting class is returning completely intact: Bridges, Nick Ward, Cassius Winston and Joshua Langford are all back. And Izzo brings in one of the top 2017 recruits in forward Jaren Jackson.

But Sparty isn’t the only one with an impressive returning group. Purdue’s experienced roster has already been covered. Northwestern, a surprise contender in 2016-17, should be even better as Bryant McIntosh, Vic Law and Scottie Lindsey enter their fourth year playing together. Dererk Pardon, a shot-blocking whiz at center, is also back, as is sharp-shooter Aaron Falzon, who sat out the 2016-17 season with an injury after starting during his freshman year in 2015-16.

There will be big shoes to fill for some perennial contenders like Maryland — which must replace Melo Trimble — and Michigan, which watched eligibility run out on Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin before D.J. Wilson decided to head to the professional ranks Wednesday. But those teams have plenty of talent returning, too. The Terps will have all three of their fab freshmen — Justin Jackson, Anthony Cowan and Kevin Huerter — back for sophomore seasons, while the Wolverines have Moe Wagner back in the fold alongside Xavier Simpson and Duncan Robinson, among others.

And what of last year’s shocking contender, Minnesota? The Golden Gophers didn’t lose too much this offseason and will return almost every main player from last year’s 24-10 squad: Amir Coffey, Nate Mason, Reggie Lynch, Jordan Murphy, Dupree McBrayer and Eric Curry.

There are up-and-comers to think about, too, such as last year’s freshman-heavy squads at Iowa and Penn State. And could new head coaches Brad Underwood and Archie Miller make instant splashes at Illinois and Indiana, respectively?

If it sounds a little too much like the annual coach speak that “any team can win on any night” in the Big Ten, that’s because there is a good deal of truth to that oft-used phrase.

There are definitely tiers to this thing, though. Even without Swanigan, Purdue is still in one of those upper tiers. But there might be no team besides Michigan State at the very top of the heap, something underscored by Swanigan turning pro.

Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

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Illini play freshman quarterback Cam Thomas for first time, but still fall at Minnesota

While Saturday's trip to the Twin Cities featured some more of the same for the Fighting Illini, it marked important step in Lovie Smith's rebuilding project.

Freshman quarterback Cam Thomas, a Marian Catholic product, saw action for the first time in his collegiate career, Smith busting out a new option at the game's most important position. Thomas threw a nasty pick six, but he did lead Illinois in rushing in a 24-17 loss at Minnesota.

Thomas only made four throws, completing two of them and landing a third in the hands of a Minnesota defender, but his play injected a bit of excitement into what's looking like another dreadful season of Illinois football, with Smith's team falling to 2-5 through the first seven games of his second season at the helm of the program. Thomas mostly starred with his feet Saturday, rushing for a team-high 79 yards in the defeat.

His first appearance came following the first of the Illinois' defense's three takeaways. Thomas ran for a nine-yard gain on his first carry, and the Illini tied the game with a touchdown on the next play. Thomas was interchanged with starting quarterback Jeff George Jr. from there on out.

While the Illini defense kept the Gophers at bay for much of the day thanks to those three takeaways, P.J. Fleck's team had no trouble racking up rushing yardage, finishing with a whopping 292 rushing yards. Minnesota engineered a 12-play, 75-yard drive in the fourth quarter exclusively running the ball to break a 10-all tie and go up 17-10.

Thomas threw a pick six on the very next play from scrimmage, sending the Gophers up 24-10 to effectively seal the deal. George led an Illinois touchdown drive on the next possession, but the Illini couldn't make up the suddenly big gap in the limited amount of time.

Illinois finished with only 282 yards of offense. George was 18-for-23 for 128 yards and a touchdown. Ra'Von Bonner carried the ball 18 times for 57 yards and a touchdown.

The defeat dropped the Illini to 2-5 on the season and 0-4 in conference play. One of just two teams without a Big Ten win (Indiana is the other), Illinois faces off against a top-10 Wisconsin team next weekend.

Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

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Big play from Justin Jackson sets up Northwestern's overtime win over Iowa

Justin Jackson is one of the top 10 rushers in Big Ten history for a reason: He's very, very good at this football thing.

But it was a big play Jackson made not as a ball-carrier but as a pass-catcher Saturday that set up Northwestern's second straight win, a 17-10 takedown of Iowa in Evanston.

Jackson took a pass from quarterback Clayton Thorson and went all the way down to the 1-yard line, picking up 23 yards and shedding multiple tacklers on the game's biggest play.

Two plays later, Thorson plunged in for the go-ahead score. Iowa failed on a fourth-down conversion attempt on its ensuing overtime possession, ending it with a dropped pass that finished the game.

The game's result rapidly altered the social-media conversation, which moments prior had been mighty critical of Pat Fitzgerald, who made a controversial decision at the end of regulation.

Iowa tied the game at 10 on a field goal inside of two minutes to play, forced to kick after a false start was committed on fourth and 1. Fitzgerald had a minute and a half and two timeouts to try to get his own team into field-goal range for a shot at a win but instead ran the clock out and headed to overtime.

Fitzgerald explained after the game that the blustery wind at Ryan Field played a big role in that decision, plus his team had a long way to go against an Iowa defense that played well throughout the game.

Northwestern's defense was very strong, too, holding Iowa to 312 total yards, only 89 of which came on the ground. Hawkeyes quarterback Nathan Stanley was also picked off in the second half for the game's only turnover.

Jackson finished with 93 rushing yards and 38 receiving yards. Thorson was 21-for-36 passing the ball for 192 yards. Backup running back Jeremy Larkin scored the Wildcats' lone regulation touchdown.

The win improved Northwestern to 4-3 on the season and 2-2 in Big Ten play. After a 2-3 start, the Cats have won back-to-back games and take on a ranked Michigan State team next weekend.