WEST LAFAYETTE — Now does everyone know about Johnny Davis?
It’s not as if the Wisconsin sophomore has been hidden in the forest. A role player with a quiet seven-point average for last year’s senior-laden Badgers, he had already announced himself as a new force in college basketball this season. There were the 30 points he threw at Houston, the 25 against Marquette, the 24 at Ohio State. He was nowhere to be found among the 11 names on the preseason all-Big Ten team, but by Monday night he had become impossible to miss.
Still, Monday night was something special. The Badgers took down No. 3 Purdue 74-69 in Mackey Arena, with half the scoring output from one 6-5 guard. Yeah, Davis had 37 points. He also had 14 rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks to lead his team in five categories. According to the Associated Press, the last Division I player to do that on the road against a top-5 opponent was Tim Duncan for Wake Forest 25 years ago.
“He’s a fabulous player. He’s got a bright future,” Purdue coach Matt Painter declared afterward. “I’d like to be his agent.”
It was a message-sending night in Mackey Arena. Here were the three loudest.
Davis won’t be left off the postseason all-Big Ten ballot . . .
Maybe it was what he had for breakfast Monday.
“I didn’t even eat breakfast this morning, actually,” he corrected.
But he had the Boilermaker defense for dinner. Anything Purdue tried, he either moved past or elevated over, making the home team pay for every defensive lapse. “There’s a lot of shots he makes there,” Purdue’s Ethan Morton said, “that you just have to shake his hand.”
Clearly, Davis’ numbers don’t look anything like last season. He spent the offseason maturing his physique and his game, and picked up valuable experience with the under-19 Team USA. One of his teammates was Purdue’s Jaden Ivey and they helped win the gold medal. Davis was 11th on the team in scoring.
But not Monday night. Aw, shucks, he more or less reacted. “I wouldn’t have been able to do that without my teammates getting me the ball in positions to score,” he said.
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He is, however, a different player than the supporting actor of last season. As a freshman, his game-high scoring total was 17 points. As a sophomore, his low is 15. His is averaging nearly 24 points over the last nine games.
“I’ve always said his No. 1 trait is his competitiveness and his willingness to lay it all on the line for his team,” coach Greg Gard said. “You heard him several times mention his teammates and that’s really what he’s always been about. He’s gotten bigger, stronger, more explosive. He’s a great listener, he’s very coachable. When you put all those things together, then you have a pretty special player.”
Painter concurred. “He’s the definition of a two-way player. He’s giving the same amount of effort on the defensive end. He gets deflections, he gets blocks, he takes on challenges. Offensively, that speaks for itself.”
Davis said he was more excited by his 14 rebounds than his 37 points, since he was in the same paint with Purdue tower Zach Edey. Davis outrebounded him 14-10. “I’d probably say that means a little more because he’s like eight feet tall,” Davis said. No, only 7-4.
The Badgers had a lot to replace and have done it with pluck . . .
Wisconsin lost four of its top five scorers from an 18-13 team and has its youngest roster in decades, but between the veteran leadership of Brad Davison, and the blossoming of Davis, the Badgers haven’t gone anywhere. They upset Houston early, came from 22 points behind to shock Indiana and 16 back to beat Texas A&M. Included in their 11-2 record are seven games decided by five points or under.
“They don’t flinch,” Gard said. “They continue to battle, they don’t get rattled.”
Grit? “This group has an abundance of that, and resolve.”
And poise. Though Mackey Arena was not up to its usual thunderous level with the students not yet back, it is still a difficult place to visit. Purdue had been 93-10 its past 103 home games. The Badgers hardly blinked, committing only seven turnovers and in the end taking over a game that had 17 lead changes.
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Playing Wisconsin is never for the meek, and this seems the usual hard-bitten bunch of Badgers, never mind the new lineup. Which is why Painter’s written message on the board to his team before the game included three words: Embrace the physicality.
“I feel like they out-toughed us the entire game,” Edey said. “They just wanted it more. They ran harder, they executed better.”
Purdue, while still a major national contender at 12-2, is not a March-ready product.
The idea Monday was to always make it hard for Davis. The Boilermakers didn’t. “When you let a guy like that get his head up during the game," Morton said, “the basket looks a lot bigger for him.”
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It seemed to confirm Painter’s warning, that for all his team’s size and firepower and flashy offensive numbers, it has yet to grasp the concept of the physical defense that the Big Ten demands. The Boilermakers are not going to break 85 every night. The fourth top scoring team in the nation had 24 points at halftime Monday. The third best shooting team struggled to get above 41 percent.
“Who are you when you miss your free throws? Who are you when you don’t have a great field goal percentage in the game?” Painter said. “Can you still grind games out, can you still win those games?
“You just don’t announce your basketball identity. You don’t announce your defensive identity. You earn those things. Right now, we’re really searching for that from a defensive standpoint and I think Johnny Davis really exposed that.”
But then, he’s been doing that to a lot of people. To the outside world, he was the vaguely familiar face on a rebuilding team when this season began. But not anymore.