Yes, it’s still early January, with two months of Big Ten play ahead. Sure, every game is crucial if you want to win a championship, as the No. 20 Boilers certainly do.
But some games are difference makers, because of the quality of the opponent, the national implications and even the tie-breaking potential.
The No. 13 Badgers (13-2 overall) already have won at Indiana. If they also win at Purdue (13-3, 2-1 in the Big Ten) on Sunday, the significance goes way beyond a 3-0 start. They would have won at two of the most difficult places to win in the Big Ten. They would have taken a huge step toward winning a conference championship.
This is the only meeting of the regular season. It’s the Boilers’ only chance to ensure Wisconsin will not run the conference table and to gain a tie-breaking edge on the Badgers.
Purdue also already has one home loss — to Minnesota in overtime. It cannot afford another.
The Boilers are coming off Thursday’s potential difference-making win at Ohio State. It was just their second win ever at Value City Arena and it demonstrated the kind of tough-minded play crucial for winning on the road … or against the Badgers anywhere.
“Ohio State is a NCAA Tournament-caliber team,” coach Matt Painter said. “They have a lot of talent. To get a true road win builds our confidence, especially in a game that could have gone either way.
“You’d like to win every game by at least 10 points, but it doesn’t work that way. Now we know if we get into a situation like that again, it can help you make plays and get stops.”
That will be crucial against Wisconsin, a veteran team that has won nine straight games.
“It keeps us up in the Big Ten race,” guard Dakota Mathias said. “Wisconsin will be a great atmosphere. We’re excited for that.”
Added swingman Vince Edwards: “Getting that win was huge. We grinded it out. It shows we can win on the road.”
Now Purdue has to show it’s ready to start a new home court winning streak. It had won nine straight before Minnesota.
“It doesn’t boost our confidence, but it helps sustain it,” Swanigan said. “Taking a loss like Minnesota — do you want to beat a team like Minnesota? Yes, but we feel we’re supposed to beat teams like Minnesota. We’re supposed to come in here and beat Ohio State. That’s how we felt. Going into Wisconsin, we feel we’re supposed to win that game, and keep on rolling.”
Purdue rolled against Ohio State in part because Swanigan recorded his seventh straight double-double and national-leading 13th of the season with 16 points and 11 rebounds. The last Boiler to record that many double-doubles in a row was Frank Kendrick during the 1973-74 season.
Purdue also got a combined 30 points (on 11-for-22 shooting), 10 rebounds and four assists from Vince Edwards and Mathias, who are Ohio natives fueled by the fact Ohio State never recruited them.
“The fact (Ohio State) didn’t’ recruit either of us, that’s a chip on our shoulders,” Mathias said. “We’re Purdue guys. That’s the biggest thing.”
Or, as Edwards put it, “It was bragging rights for Dakota and me. I’d be lying if I told you it didn’t matter.”
Wisconsin was the preseason Big Ten title favorite given it returned all five starters from a Sweet 16 team. It has three of the Big Ten’s players in forwards Nigel Hayes and Ethan Happ, and guard Bronson Koenig.
The Badgers are a year into the coaching change from Bo Ryan to Greg Gard, who has kept most of the system that has made the program among the nation’s best for more than a decade.
That paid off last Tuesday at Indiana. The Badgers led for more than 35 minutes, and were ruthless down the stretch.
The reason was both simple and hard.
“We try to treat every possession the same,” Gard said. “We try to put a maximum value on every possession, and not just in the last three to four minutes.
“Knowing that we have to take care of the ball; knowing we have to get good shots. Our players are used to that situation. It helps build good habits. Our players have really responded to that.”
UP NEXT: Wisconsin at Purdue
TIPOFF: 4:30 p.m., Sunday
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