By CLIFF BRUNT
AP Sports Writer
WEST LAFAYETTE -- A conference favorite rarely faces a critical game in early January, but injuries to two of Purdue's key players have led to a slow start and given the Boilermakers little room for error.
Purdue lost its first two Big Ten games to Illinois and Penn State, and now the No. 14 Boilermakers need a win against Wisconsin on Sunday to remain a strong contender for the title.
"We definitely are not out of the race," said E'Twaun Moore, the team's leading scorer. "We're going to come in here and try to get this victory and take things from there."
Purdue (11-4) was without guard Chris Kramer, last year's Big Ten defensive player of the year, and forward Robbie Hummel, the conference preseason player of the year, in the loss to Penn State.
Kramer missed the Penn State game with a sprained left foot and played hurt in the three previous games. Hummel has had back pain since late November and lately has suffered from back spasms.
Purdue coach Matt Painter expects Kramer to play against Wisconsin (12-3, 3-0), but he's not sure about Hummel.
"As it goes on and you lose games, there's certain things like with injuries that you can't control, and you just have to go out there and get that first victory," he said.
Hummel, averaging 13.8 points and 8.4 rebounds a game, is a stabilizer and consistent shooter on offense who can play inside and outside. Kramer is a defensive stopper and emotional leader who leads the team in steals. He was the main defender who helped hold Davidson super-scorer Stephen Curry to 13 points last month.
But there's more to the losses than the injuries. The Boilermakers are shooting poorly and at times have looked lethargic on offense.
"I just think there's some frustration right now from individuals on the team because they want to play well and they're not playing up to their abilities," Painter said. "That's a tough pill to swallow. I think that if you just keep plugging and trying and keep showing up to practice, keep wanting to get better, good things are going to happen."
The Boilermakers finished a surprising 25-9 last season -- and senior forward Marcus Green said they haven't adjusted to being the team to beat.
"We have to have a sense of urgency and focus," Green said. "Last year, we were trying to prove ourselves. We were hunting other people. Now, we're the hunted, so it's a big difference. Guys have to remember that. Teams are targeting us."
Despite the injuries and poor shooting, the Boilermakers are a few shots from being 2-0 in league play. Purdue lost to Illinois 71-67 in overtime, and nearly came back before losing 67-64 at Penn State.
Painter said the team is capable of winning without Hummel and Kramer.
"I think we still have some very good pieces, and I thought in stretches, we showed that against Penn State," he said.
Painter said the Big Ten's balance might help the Boilermakers stay in the conference race.
"From watching everybody in non-conference, it looks like the Big Ten is going to have a great year," he said. "I think there's a lot of parity in our conference. I think you're going to see a lot of teams bunched up together."
Green knows what it's like to lose. He was a freshman when Purdue went 9-19 in Painter's first year as coach.
"We can't wait until we're down three or four games in the Big Ten," Green said. "We have to turn it on now. Maybe later on, these games will come back and bite us. We have to make up for these two losses."
A win over Wisconsin would be the best way to start.
"We've just got to keep our confidence up and play like a championship team," Moore said. "Get that in our heads, hope to get a little swagger about us, and that will just build us up from there."