Purdue's quest for a record 25th Big Ten regular-season championship begins tonight.
After a dominant 11-0 run through its non-conference schedule – with a split of a pair of Big Ten games against Iowa and Rutgers sprinkled in – the Boilermakers get their conference schedule underway in earnest at Mackey Arena this evening, when No. 23 Wisconsin visits the West Lafayette basketball mecca. Following a trio of blowouts against Butler, Incarnate Word and Nicholls State, there is no easing back into Big Ten play for the Boilers; as usual, the Badgers have a tough team with NCAA Tournament written all over it, despite missing some of the veteran leadership it usually enjoys.
Wisconsin already boasts victories over then-No. 12 Houston, Georgia Tech, St. Mary's, Texas A&M, Marquette and Indiana and its lone losses have come against teams ranked in the current top 16 of the AP Poll: Ohio State and Providence. The Badgers have dealt with availability issues this season, losing players to injury and experiencing a bout of coronavirus within the program that forced the cancellation of a December game against George Mason. They returned from a 14-day layoff to sneak past Illinois State 89-85 on Dec. 29 despite missing rotation pieces in forward Ben Carlson and guards Lorne Bowman and Jahcobi Neath. Bowman in particular was a significant loss because of his ability to shoot from the outside (he hits nearly 53%, albeit on only about two attempts per game).
It's unclear how many, if any, of the Badgers will be out tonight, but it seems likely they will at least have the services of their two best players: sophomore guard Jonathan Davis and super-senior guard Brad Davison. The 6-foot-5 Davis is one of the Big Ten's best players, averaging 20.8 points, 6.6 rebounds and 1.5 steals. He has a claim to being the second-best guard in the conference behind only Purdue's Jaden Ivey; he possesses the top-end athleticism few associate with Wisconsin basketball and he has been able to carry the load as the Badgers' go-to scorer all season. Wisconsin relies on Davis for such a large chunk of its offense (he takes about 28% of the Badgers' shots) that it makes him somewhat inefficient, however. He is only a 44% shooter from the field and hits just 34% of his 3-point attempts. Purdue might be content to let Davis get his if it means slowing down the rest of the Badger offense.
Much of the rest of that offense comes from Davison, who is in his fifth year as a starter for the Badgers and is averaging a career-high 14.5 points on a career-low 33.7% 3-point shooting. Davison is not a strong offensive player inside the arc and if he's not knocking down 3s, the Badgers can quickly become one-dimensional offensively. Davison also has a reputation as an extremely physical player and he is not averse to employing some gamesmanship. More than anything, Purdue will have to keep its poise in the face of a Wisconsin team which thrives on forcing opponents into mistakes.
The Boilermakers are coming off back-to-back easy wins that probably should have been easier. Neither Incarnate Word nor Nicholls State was ever a real threat to upset the Boilers, but they hung closer than they should have (losing by 20 and 14, respectively) thanks to a bevy of 3-pointers. Coach Matt Painter noted the silver lining of those struggles to guard the 3-point line, which ensured Purdue will not get complacent heading into tonight's matchup. Wisconsin is not a good 3-point shooting team, hitting only 30.4% from beyond the arc, 300th in the country, but it likes to slow the ball down and limit possessions, meaning even a flurry of two or three 3s in quick succession could loom large.
The Boilermakers are the better, deeper, more experienced team and should win this game, but Wisconsin is a solid team in its own right, easily capable of taking advantage of Purdue mistakes and stealing a huge road win early in the Big Ten schedule. Mackey Arena will be rocking and Purdue will get a chance to put its talent on display against a ranked opponent for the first time since it faced Villanova on Nov. 21. Let the Big Ten gauntlet begin.