Tonight's contest between Wisconsin and Purdue is not any less important to the combatants themselves despite the fact that neither team is ranked. The Badgers (12-5, 1-3 Big Ten) are entering must-win territory. Matt Painter has been adamant that he's not buying the doom and gloom prognosis for Wisconsin.
It's been rare that Purdue (13-4, 3-1) and Wisconsin have not both been ranked during the Painter and Bo Ryan eras, but even more rare that UW pulls out a win in West Lafayette. Can the Badgers reverse the curse?
Just how ghastly the state of Indiana has been to Wisconsin is stunning, as I realized when exchanging pre-game thoughts with Travis Miller of Hammer and Rails fame. Travis was kind enough to give B5Q his insight on how this year's edition of Boilermakers stacks up.
B5Q: Describe what it's like to see Robbie Hummel out on the court again. For those who haven't watched Purdue yet, how close is he to being the player he was before his gut-wrenching string of injuries and if there are differences, what are those?
H&R: It is beautiful, but also a tad bittersweet. This team is not as good as the last one he played for, and you’d be hard pressed to find a Purdue fan that doesn’t think we have a possible National Championship or two had he not gotten injured. People don’t realize that we were only playing our 7th game with a full roster when he originally got hurt. Lewis Jackson had just returned from foot surgery, and in that Minnesota game, it looked like everything was clicking to form an unstoppable machine. Minnesota was in desperation mode as a good team playing at home in need of a signature win, and we were CRUSHING them when Rob got hurt.
If Rob stays healthy, we’re a No. 1 seed and the likely undisputed Big Ten champ that year. LewJack would have been rounded into form by the tournament, and with Chris Kramer as a defensive pest, plus a solid bench, we were primed for a very deep tournament run, if not the title itself. I always felt the 2011 team could have been better than 2010 had Rob returned healthy. Losing Rob last year stung, but we still had an excellent year that inexplicably fell apart in the last four games. Does it happen with Hummel? Who knows. We looked so awful in the final four games of last season I am not sure what Rob’s presence would have done, and it was shocking because we looked so good against Ohio State.
As far as this season goes, Rob has had his ups and downs. He’s been a consistent scorer and has been willing to take the ball to the basket, but you can tell at times the knee limits him. He is still a very effective player, but he’s not quite the same Robbie Hummel of old.
B5Q: Ever since his star turn on BTN's The Journey, I have been a Lewis Jackson fan. He's a tough SOB and seems like a pretty cool cat. But back problems look like they might limit him on and off throughout the year. What are you expecting from LewJack in the near future and what level of production constitutes a successful season for him?
H&R: I don’t know what to expect. We got nothing from him against Penn State because of his back, but he somehow dug deep to Keyser Soze Minnesota in the second half. LewJack is going to play as long as he can physically drag himself onto the floor. I fear we missed a chance to rest him during some easy non-conference games, but as long as he can do what he did at Minnesota we’ll have a shot at anyone.
B5Q: On paper, Purdue looks soft in the middle and I thought that might be their Achilles' heel this season. How have the young guys fared inside so far and do you see this area as an advantage for Wisconsin?
H&R: Again, this is a hit or miss area. Jacob Lawson has had his moments so far, but his free throw shooting is a liability and he struggles to stay out of foul trouble. That last factor has wrecked his confidence some. Travis Carroll is better on the defensive end than the offensive end. He is not as aggressive as he could be, but he has the best jumper of any of the three. Sandi Marcius is better than last year, but has been limited with a calf injury since before Christmas. He is our biggest body, but he is still getting some of his basic basketball skills down since he picked up the game later than most.
B5Q: The Boilers have been horrible at the free throw line (61.4%) this year, yet are a pretty good shooting team from the field (52.3 eFG%). What gives? Should Wisconsin just foul the underclassmen every time they touch the ball?
H&R: I have no idea what gives, but if you want to foul someone, foul Terone Johnson. We’ve been bad, but he has been nothing short of horrible. He is an absurdly awful 10 of 40 from the line as a backup point guard that can get to the basket. I really can’t explain it. Even Hummel, who was near 90% from the line before his injury, has dropped off to 79%.
B5Q: Like Wisconsin, Purdue has suffered a couple of "What the H?" losses this season: a tough one to a depleted Butler team and the blowout loss at Penn State. If you had no choice but to talk a Badger fan off a ledge about possibly starting 1-4 in conference play, what would you tell him is the key aspect to Wisconsin stealing a win at Mackey?
H&R: If Purdue reverts to the "Pass the ball around the perimeter and shoot bad threes over the zone" offense Wisconsin has a chance. There has been a common factor in the Butler and Xavier collapses as well as the Penn State debacle: they played zone and we stopped attacking the basket. When our offense goes stagnant, things get ugly in a hurry. Fortunately, we have been a different team at Mackey Arena, especially since a near disastrous loss to High Point in November. Our home winning streak is over 25 games and I felt going into the season this game would be the most dangerous in that regard. We don’t get Ohio State or Minnesota at home, so this is a big game atmosphere for us.
B5Q: What individual match up are you most looking forward to tonight?
H&R: Kelsey Barlow vs. Jordan Taylor. Barlow is our most versatile player who can score at the rim and defend like a madman, but only if his give-a-shit is turned on. If he checks out it can get ugly, but when he is on, watch out.
B5Q: In my eyes, this game is going to be another grinder between good defensive squads. Do you have a prediction?
H&R: I have to go with the Mackey Magic. We’re a different team at home when we get the crowd behind us. I think Purdue gets a low-scoring, five-point victory at home.
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