Opening conference play with back-to-back losses was a shock for a ranked Purdue team expecting to compete for the Big Ten title.
Northwestern’s slow start in conference play was less of a surprise.
The 19th-ranked Boilermakers look to build on their first conference win Thursday as they visit a struggling Wildcats squad hoping to avoid its third straight 0-4 Big Ten start.
Purdue (12-4, 1-2) was ranked as high as ninth in the AP poll during its 11-2 start. The Boilermakers’ only losses in that stretch came against then-No. 11 Oklahoma and then-No. 4 Duke.
The strong start to the season raised expectations for conference play, but the Boilermakers faltered early, dropping their Big Ten opener 71-67 in overtime at home against Illinois on Dec. 30. They followed that defeat with a 67-64 loss at Penn State on Jan. 6.
Robbie Hummel, the Big Ten preseason player of the year, missed that game with back spasms. He returned to help deliver Purdue’s first conference victory Sunday, scoring 11 of his 16 points in the second half of a 65-52 home win over Wisconsin.
The sophomore forward made 4-of-8 3-pointers and added five rebounds in 28 minutes.
“The first half, I was a little iffy. The second half, I got more confident,” he said. “The adrenaline kicked in. To be honest, I feel really good. I didn’t feel any pain.”
Purdue also got defensive specialist Chris Kramer back Sunday after the junior guard missed the Penn State game with a sprained left foot.
“I think they really helped us in a lot of aspects of the game,” coach Matt Painter said. “Sharing the basketball, making the extra pass, they do a lot of the little things.”
With Hummel and Kramer healthy, the Boilermakers are optimistic that they can still compete for the top spot in the conference despite their surprisingly slow start.
“Those losses really opened our eyes,” said JaJuan Johnson, who had 20 points and 10 rebounds Sunday. “We had to come out and get a win to help us regain our focus for the rest of the season.”
A meeting with the Wildcats (8-5, 0-3) could further bolster the Boilermakers’ confidence.
Northwestern has lost its first three Big Ten games for the third straight season to fall to 3-34 against conference rivals since the beginning of 2006-07.
The Wildcats looked destined for their third straight last-place finish in their last game Jan. 7. They were outscored 44-24 in the second half of a 74-45 loss to Wisconsin – their sixth consecutive conference defeat since a 62-60 victory over Michigan on Feb. 26.
Northwestern shot a season-low 31.4 percent from the field and didn’t have a player score in double figures.
“I didn’t feel the spark,” said coach Bill Carmody, who starts two freshmen and a sophomore. “I think some of the younger guys going into some of the new arenas away from home, it’s bothering them, because generally they aren’t playing too well.”
Carmody’s club hasn’t fared much better at Welsh-Ryan Arena, where it’s lost 12 straight conference games.
The Wildcats have also dropped four straight against Purdue, losing both meetings last season by an average of 20.0 points.