Sometimes two opposing fanbases have a begrudging respect for each other just because of how they play. Wisconsin football fans can appreciate a defensive-minded team with a strong ground attack much easier than they can acknowledge the merits of a Pac-12 or Big XII shootout participant.
The same thing exists in basketball, where Badger fans can acknowledge that a conference win over Michigan State or Purdue is always a big deal. Like Wisconsin, those two teams consistently field tough, defensive-minded squads that focus on player development rather than selling snake oil to one-and-done recruits.
As UW undergoes major transitions in its program, the first Big Ten visitor it faces this season is a Purdue team that has weathered storms of its own and reemerged back at the top of its game. The last time the Boilermakers beat the Badgers was three seasons ago, inside the Kohl Center oddly enough, in surprisingly convincing fashion. It was a bright spot for Purdue in the midst of a two-year run that saw Matt Painter's crew lose 35 games and miss the NCAA Tournament twice in a row. The win also came two years after months of rumors about whether Painter would abandon the program for Missouri hung over West Lafayette like a cackling dark cloud.
Today, Purdue can boast it has won as many games at the Kohl Center as any other program in the building's history. The Boilers can ascend to the top spot on that list with a fourth win on Tuesday night.
The Boilermaker defense is not only tops in the Big Ten, it might be the best in the nation. Ken Pomeroy rates their defense as the toughest to score against, at 87.3 adjusted points per possession surrendered. Purdue allows just 58.6 points per game (sixth-best nationally), while holding opponents to 33.9 percent shooting, the lowest percentage in the country.
If Purdue holds Wisconsin to fewer than 71 points, the Boilers will have held the last 12 opponents below their season average.
A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas are two big reasons why, literally.
Despite working through some off-court issues as the season began and settling into a role off the bench, Hammons has garnered Big Ten Player of the Week honors twice already this season, including this past week when he put up a ridiculous line of 21 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocked shots against Vanderbilt.
Haas is the starter and not near the shot blocker Hammons is. But the Ivan Drago-looking sophomore is one of the most imposing physical beings in the college game. One of these two centers will be in the game at all times, hovering around the rim on defense. Just by sheer size alone, their presence allows the Boilermaker guards and wings to extend pressure in the halfcourt. The new "freedom of motion" officiating rules haven't seemed to detract from the effectiveness of Purdue's trademark defensive style.
That's just one reason why Bronson Koenig needs to have a huge bounce back game for Wisconsin. Koenig drove the lane against Green Bay like he had something to prove. Like he was overcome with excitement about the loosing of the shackles of the Bo Ryan offense. Whatever the reason, Koenig's judgment wasn't up to snuff. He turned the ball over eight times in his worst game as a Badger.
In order to win, Wisconsin will need more than just Koenig to play well of course. For starters, Koenig and Nigel Hayes haven't scored in double-digits together since the Milwaukee game. Hayes was remarkably efficient in his last outing, recovering from his own six turnover performance versus Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
Obviously the entire frontline of the Badgers will be in the spotlight as well. Vitto Brown has the much-needed ability to pull the giant Purdue centers away from the hoop with his improved shooting range, and to a lesser degree, Greg Gard has shown that he might like freshman Alex Illikainen in that role as well. Even though Happ doesn't stray from the basket much, he'd got the kind of footwork inside that could draw a few fouls from Haas, if not Hammons.
However, there's still a need for some brute strength to match up with Haas, Hammons and Swanigan inside and Charlie Thomas fits the bill as well as anyone. Look for Thomas to get a lot more burn than he did against Green Bay.
Surprisingly, both Hammons and Haas settle for quite a few jump shots on offense, however. Freshman Caleb Swanigan, at 6'9, 250 lb., is the only three-point threat among the Boiler big men. Outside of Johnny Hill, the rest of the Boilermakers shoot very well from downtown, where they get an above average portion of their points.
Purdue is simply a really good basketball team that is well-rounded on all fronts, both defensively and offensively. The Boilers struggle with turnovers at times and probably allow more offensive rebounds than you'd expect, but guys like Rapheal Davis and Vince Edwards can make the sort of plays that win ballgames.
Depending on who you are, you may not respect Purdue that much, but I can assure you that the Badgers do. And if Wisconsin can pull it off, this upset would one worth getting excited about.