Just like Sullinger commanded the extra attention, a good portion of No.10 Wisconsin's focus when it faces No.11 Purdue with sole possession of second place at stake tonight at Mackey Arena will be on the Boilermakers' big senior, who assistant coach Gary Close said is more versatile than Sullinger and has expanded his game more than anybody else in the conference.
He's a big reason why Purdue (20-5, 9-3 Big Ten) are overcoming the odds despite being written off at the season's onset after losing team leader Robbie Hummel, as Johnson leads the conference in both season scoring (20.7 points) and conference scoring (21.2).
"Johnson is able to put the ball on the floor, play with his back to the basket or hit a perimeter jump shot while Sullinger is pretty much right on the block and one of the best in the country on the block," said Close. "We try to make the shot as tough as possible and hope that he doesn't tear you up, which he's capable of doing. He's a handful."
When the Badgers (19-5, 9-3 Big Ten) met Purdue Feb.1, a 66-59 Wisconsin victory, Johnson shot only 9 or 19 from the floor, but scored 17 of his team-high 23 points in the second half, one of his 15 20-point games on the season, the most in the Big Ten.
"He got away from us in the second half, so there are things we can improve on and things we need to eliminate going forward as far as guarding him," said senior Keaton Nankivil, who primarily guarded Sullinger and will again be matched up with Johnson, who is averaging 23.1 points per game over Purdue's last nine outings.
"Everything with this team is a group thing. It's such a fast-paced game that we work all week on scouting different plays. Collectively, we do a pretty good job of making the right reads."
Like all of the top conference teams in the Big Ten, Purdue's Johnson isn't the only player that commands attention. Second on the team with 17.8 points per game, senior E'Twaun Moore needs 30 points to become fourth 2,000-point, 500-rebound, 350-assist player in league history.
Moore, who scored 15 points on 7 of 15 shooting in the team's first two meetings, combined with Johnson is the nation's third-highest-scoring duo, averaging 38.5 points per game and representing 52.2 percent of the Boilers' 73.8 points-per-game average on the season.
"Those guys are obviously the two best players in the country and they've proven that over their careers," said senior Jon Leuer. "You try to limit what they do, limit Johnson's touches and try to make it tough for Moore to score. We're going to do everything we can to slow them down, but we can't forget about the other three players on the court either."
In a touch of irony, deviating focus has been one of the big reasons the Badgers have won ball games in the month of February.
Against No.1 Ohio State, the Badgers were beneficiaries from junior guard Jordan Taylor's 27 points (21 in the second half) and Leuer's 12 points, 6 rebounds, but got the win because of sophomore Mike Bruesewitz's 12 points (including a clinching 3-pointer in the final minute) and freshman Josh Gasser's 11 points and 7 rebounds.
"Bruesewitz, that was the guy we were saying, 'Of the five guys, let him be the guy that beats us and he did," Ohio State coach Thad Matta said.
Against Purdue in Madison, Leuer and Taylor scored 24 and 15, respectively, but got 11 points on 4 of 4 shooting from Gasser and 10 points off the bench from sophomore Ryan Evans that were instrumental, production that UW will have to equal if it hopes to win at Purdue for only the second time since 1972.
"We know what those guys can do on any given night and when they start doing that, it opens up things for everybody else on the team," said Taylor, as Wisconsin is 4-1 against teams ranked in the AP Top 25 this season. "You have to start honoring everything that everybody on the floor is doing."