The Wisconsin Badgers continue their Big Ten journey this afternoon as they travel to West Lafayette to take on the Purdue Boilermakers at Mackey Arena. The game is scheduled to tip at 3:30pm on CBS; yes of course ten minutes before kickoff of the Packers playoff tilt with the Giants.
Last season, the Badgers lost both of their meetings with the Boilermakers, first to start off Big Ten play and then again to end the regular season. They were defeated by scores of 55-61 (Kohl Center) and 80-91 (Mackey Arena).
The Purdue Boilermakers have had a bit of an unexpected start to conference play, as have many teams in the B1G. They currently sport a record of 13-3, 2-1 conference. 2-1 doesn’t seem so bad, but how they’ve gotten there is what brings me to say it. Purdue was my pick to open the season to go undefeated at home, but in their second home test in conference play the Boilermakers lost at Mackey Arena to the Minnesota Golden Gophers despite a 20-point, 20-rebound performance from superstar, big-man Caleb Swanigan. The Boilermakers knocked off Iowa to open Big Ten play, and escaped Ohio State on Thursday with a 76-75 victory on the road. After coming into the B1G season ranked #15 and seeing their first couple of opponents, the Boilermakers haven’t exactly performed to the level they’d like.
Nonetheless, the Boilermakers, just like Indiana, are not a team that anyone can look past in this, seemingly weaker than normal, Big 10 conference. Purdue is led by, in my opinion, the best all-around big man in the conference, and one of the best in the nation, Sophomore Caleb Swanigan. Swanigan is currently posting impressive numbers: 18.3ppg, 12.9rpg, and also can take his defender outside the arc as he shoots 40% from the 3-point line. In the past 20 years the Big Ten has seen six ‘20 point-20 rebound’ games. Four of those belong to Caleb Swanigan, all of them coming this season. That’s impressive. Purdue is also led by 7’2” Isaac Haas (13.4ppg), Vincent Edwards (12.4ppg, 3.8apg, 5.5rpg), and Carsen Edwards (10.8ppg).
But let’s get back to the hottest team in the Big Ten, your Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers come into this afternoons contest with an overall record of 13-2, 2-0 in conference play. They are currently riding a 9-game win streak coming into West Lafayette, their last loss coming at the hands of North Carolina in the Maui Invitational Championship on November 23rd. Wisconsin’s most recent win came against a tough Indiana team on the road in Bloomington where the Badgers defeated the Hoosiers by the score of 75-68 at Assembly Hall. The Badgers are really starting to flex their experience and resiliency; especially in this last game against a tough and athletic Indiana team. The Badgers come into their matchup with Purdue ranked number 13 in the nation. Wisconsin sits a half-game behind the 3-0 Nebraska Cornhuskers in conference play; as the Badgers and Huskers are the only unbeatens in the conference after Michigan States loss at Penn State on Saturday.
The Badgers are led, per usual, by their consistent starting-5 in Ethan Happ, Vitto Brown, Nigel Hayes, Zak Showalter, and Bronson Koenig. Ethan Happ has been moving his way up into the conversation for Player of the Year in the Big 10 and also on the Wooden Award Watch List, and deservingly so. The redshirt Sophomore is averaging 13.1ppg and 9.4rpg, a near double-double. But it’s not just the numbers that are impressive about Happ, it’s his skill in the lane and his footwork and his hustle. Jay Bilas said during the Indiana game that he is so impressed with Ethan Happ because it’s arguably difficult to find a game where he hasn’t played well, and I have to agree with him. Even in a game like North Carolina where the Badgers were clearly outplayed, the Sophomore still put up a solid 13 points and 6 rebounds which was head-and=shoulders above anyone else on the Badgers roster. Happ’s ability to get to the rim is something special. The Badgers are also led by Senior duo Bronson Koenig (14.3ppg) and Nigel Hayes (13.7ppg, 5.5rpg, 3.2apg). Koenig is coming off an impressive performance at Indiana where he scored 17 points and went 5-5 from the 3-point line, but only played 25 minutes due to foul trouble throughout the game.
A crucial aspect of the game this afternoon will be the rebounding battle, and the big question is: can Wisconsin’s rebounding stand up to Purdue? The Badgers currently rebound 38.8% of shots on their offensive glass, which is 10th in the country; a mark that ranks higher than any of Bo Ryan’s 15 Wisconsin teams. Greg Gard loves to push the offensive glass, but in the way of all of this is Caleb Swanigan, who may be the only person standing between Ethan Happ and the Big 10 Player of the Year honors. Swanigan grabs nearly 34% of available defensive rebounds on a team that collectively corrals 77% of available defensive rebounds, that’s hard to handle. The defensive battle will be crucial for the Badgers game plan to be successful at a tough Mackey Arena. If the Badgers are able to limit Caleb Swanigan on the glass and get Ethan Happ going down low; the Badgers should have a good recipe for success. Ohio State held Swanigan to five points in the first half on Thursday and lost the game by one. If the Badgers can somewhat replicate that defensive lockdown and dominate the glass I can see Wisconsin escaping West Lafayette with another victory over a top-25 opponent.
I think it’s easy to tell that my Player-To-Watch this afternoon is Ethan Happ. Happ is coming off a big game against Indiana where he scored 19 points to go along with 6 rebounds where he completely outplayed and out-hustled the Indiana big men, including Thomas Bryant. If Happ can stay out of foul trouble and make Swanigan really earn everything he gets down low, that will help the Badgers immensely to escape with a victory. At the beginning of the season Happ wasn’t so great when the opponent doubled down on him in the post, but as of late he has been phenomenal in finding open teammates out on the perimeter to knock down open shots after the double team.
As I mentioned before, the Purdue Boilermakers were my pick at the beginning of the season to go undefeated at their Mackey Arena, which is an extremely tough place to play. But Minnesota proved that they can be beaten. While the Badgers are playing to keep their undefeated conference record alive and to possibly crack the top-10 in national rankings, there is one more thing that can motivate this Badgers team this afternoon: The Badgers have not won at both Assembly Hall and at Purdue in the same season since 1972. After the big win at Assembly Hall on Tuesday against the Hoosiers, the Badgers have an opportunity to break that streak and emerge victorious at both venues for the first time in 45 years.
King’s Prediction: BADGERS 78 Purdue 71 (King is 10-2 on the season)
As always, #OnWisconsin
Ben Thorson’s (@benjthorson) Prediction: I’m pretty torn over this one, earlier in the week I mentioned I would pick Purdue at home. It is a team that the Badgers don’t matchup great against as Swanigan and Isaac Haas create so many matchup problems for many Big Ten teams. In the Badgers last loss, against North Carolina, they struggled to defend forward Kennedy Meeks who finished the game with 15 points and 16 rebounds. But Wisconsin on Tuesday proved they are getting better against physical teams as they limited Indian center, Thomas Bryant to six points and three rebounds. The Badgers proved to me that their experience is going to pay dividends, and it may even be the reason they hoist the Big Ten crown by years end. After trailing Indiana 56-57 late in the second half, the Badgers finished the game on a 19-11 run over the final 7:06 to escape Assembly Hall with the victory. UW will most likely need a similar finish to defeat Purdue on Sunday afternoon as I expect the game to be close throughout. The biggest question marks are: can Ethan Happ stay out of foul trouble and who will guard the Purdue bigs with Happ on the bench? If the Badgers can survive these daunting tests, then I expect the Badgers experienced lineup to find a way to gut out another win.
BADGERS 73 Purdue 69 (Thorson is 14-1 on the season)