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Wisconsin opens Big Ten play Tuesday against No.14 Purdue

Before Wisconsin takes on No.14 Purdue at the Kohl Center Tuesday evening, Badger Nation looks at the three burning questions we're looking to have answered.

The Greg Gard era at Wisconsin started off with a win, as the Badgers ended a tumultuous nonconference season on a high note with a win over Green Bay Wednesday. But what seemed like a sure runaway victory, with the Badgers up 30 points with 13 minutes to go, ended up being only a five-point win.

In order to win games in a loaded Big Ten conference Wisconsin will need to play with more consistency then they showed during nonconference play. That’s especially true against Purdue (12-1), which was the one Big Ten team in the Bo Ryan era that constantly gave the Badgers fits with their physicality. The six days off will be helpful for Wisconsin and its frontcourt to prepare against what should be a physical game.

In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin as they face Purdue Tuesday to start Big Ten play.

Lay up: Can Wisconsin’s bench produce again?

It hasn’t been a big surprise to note that Wisconsin’s three-man freshman bench has struggled to score at times this year. Entering the game against Green Bay, UW’s bench was averaging 9.5 points a game but foul trouble and Gard’s willingness to extend the rotation allowed the reserves to contribute 20 points in the win. The 20 points marked the seventh time Wisconsin reached double figures in bench points this year.

Charlie Thomas (4.0 points a game) and Khalil Iverson (3.5 ppg) have been the two most consistent scorers off the bench, as Thomas has scored in nine of Wisconsin’s 13 games and Iverson has scored in 10 games. Redshirt sophomore Jordan Hill and freshman Alex Illikainen each have averaged 6.1 minutes a game as both registered season highs in minutes against Green Bay. Illikainen was the first off the bench for Wisconsin and Hill played a career-high 22 minutes.

It is hard to know what the reserves will provide against a talented Purdue team, but the x-factor could be Hill. Coming off his best game as a Badger, Hill allowed the offense to come to him and did a good job of not forcing anything on offense. Hill finished 3-for-6 from the field and tied for the team lead with a 4-to-2 assist-to-turnover ratio.

It will be interesting to see how Hill responds against Purdue after seeing his first extensive action of his career. Hill, who plays with a confidence when he’s out on the floor, should be able to use his performance against the Phoenix as a springboard. If Hill can continue to play like he did, it will take pressure off of Bronson Koenig from having to log heavy minutes every night.

Although Hill was able to find a rhythm with his shot against Green Bay, he will likely be counted on to help distribute the ball to his teammates to find a good shot from the field. Finding a rhythm on offense and consistently getting good shots will be important against Purdue’s defense, which is allowing teams to shoot 33.9 percent from the field (best in the Big Ten).

Mid-range jumper: Protecting the basketball

It is starting to get scary how often Wisconsin is turning the ball over. At times you can credit the defense for forcing Wisconsin into a mistake, but other times Wisconsin’s turnovers are just due to being careless or not paying attention on the floor.

Wisconsin committed 26 turnovers against Green Bay, a number that can’t be tolerated. Gard will need to be able coach his team up and make sure they know how to be able to break the press, as the Phoenix forced 16 turnovers in the second half. Purdue’s length and size could give Wisconsin fits if they don’t space the floor well.

Nigel Hayes will likely be counted on to help break the press, as he has increased his ball handling bringing the ball up to the half court and has shown his improvement in the passing game. Leading the team with 4.2 assists per game, Hayes has taken advantage of his height and experience by seeing the passing lanes and getting the ball to his intended target.

Purdue’s defense is forcing opponents into 11.2 turnovers per game, 5.1 of which have come off steals. Considering Wisconsin has committed double-digit turnovers in four of the last six games, one of the things the Badgers can’t allow is for the Boilers to create too many extra offensive possessions for themselves and establish a rhythm on offense. Purdue averages 14.6 points a game off of turnovers.

Wisconsin’s backcourt will need to be cognizant of Johnny Hill, who leads the team with 19 steals off the bench, had three steals in Tuesday’s victory over Vanderbilt and has only three games without a steal this season. With Hill likely defending Bronson Koenig when he’s on the floor, Koenig will need to clean up his game, as he finished with an ugly eight turnovers against Green Bay. Any lapse of concentration by Koenig against Hill could turn into an easy two points for Purdue.

3-pointer: Slowing Purdue down in the paint

Purdue’s frontcourt gave Wisconsin fits last season and registered 38 points in the paint in the lone regular season matchup. Purdue was on pace to have similar success in the Big Ten tournament, but the plan went awry when Wisconsin got A.J. Hammons into foul trouble.

But with Hammons and Isaac Haas returning and 6-9 freshman Caleb Swanigan added to the mix, Wisconsin – allowing 26.3 points in the paint - will be tested to the max to defend the post against Purdue’s frontcourt. Purdue is one of five Big Ten teams to average 80 or more points a contest (81 ppg) and 38.8 percent of its offense comes inside the paint (31.5 ppg).

Hammons, Haas and Swanigan are the top three leading scorers for Purdue, as they average 13.3, 12.2 and 11.3 points a game, respectively. Wisconsin’s frontcourt defense has been good over the last six games (only allowing Marquette and Green Bay to score at least 30 points) and that trend will need to continue.

Vitto Brown and Ethan Happ will both have challenges against Hammons and Haas. Hayes could defend either player but it would be a size mismatch in favor of Purdue and will require help from Brown or Happ. Wisconsin’s frontcourt will need to be aggressive without fouling, as Gard could consistently rotate his frontcourt players against Purdue in order to stay fresh throughout the game. Wisconsin has averaged 4.1 blocks a game with Happ leading the team with 17, including at least one in four straight games. However, the ability to block a shot of Purdue’s frontcourt players will be difficult, as teams only average 2.2 blocks a game against Purdue.

Rebounding will be a huge emphasis on Tuesday. Wisconsin has outrebounded all 13 opponents, but Purdue averages 44.8 rebounds a game, including 12.1 on the offensive glass. Wisconsin has done well of keeping teams off the offensive glass, holding them to 9.3 offensive rebounds a game, but have given up double-digit offensive rebounds the last two games. But with Wisconsin consistently limiting opponents to one shot per possession, it has resulted in teams averaging 9.6 points off of second-chance opportunities. Purdue has generated 12 points off its second chances, so limiting Purdue to one shot per possession will give Wisconsin a chance to keep the game within striking distance.

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