In the last three weeks, Wisconsin has picked up two impressive conference road wins by snapping Maryland’s 27 game home winning streak and ending Iowa’s 16 game home streak. The Badgers and head coach Greg Gard will try to make it a hat trick Sunday night against No.15 Purdue in West Lafayette, Ind.
Wisconsin is 5-3 on the road this season under Gard but winning at Mackey Arena has historically been a challenge. Since the building opened in December 1967, Wisconsin is 4-37. Former head coach Bo Ryan, who seemingly won everywhere, lost seven of his first eight trips to the building before winning on his final two trips there in 2011 and 2013.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (20-10, 12-5 Big Ten) to contain Purdue (23-7, 11-6) and its frontcourt’s size and physicality.
Lay Up: The play of Ethan Happ
In his first career Big Ten game, Happ certainly struggled against Purdue, finishing with two points on 2-for-8 shooting, three rebounds and battling through foul trouble in the 61-55 defeat. It was clear Happ struggled to deal with the size of Purdue’s frontcourt. How Happ handles that Sunday will be telling since no conference team has a frontline that compares in size of strength to the Boilermakers.
The closest team to resemble Purdue’s frontcourt is Iowa, and Happ didn’t fare very well against the Hawkeyes last week, being held to only five points on four shots. The five points against Iowa is the only game over the last five where Happ has scored in single digits.
But since the Big Ten opener, Happ has shot 54.6 percent (76-for-139) from the field, averaged 12.7 points per game and registered five double-doubles. Happ is going to have to be willing to be physical down low and be able to fight through contact, either getting a good shot in the paint or drawing the foul against one of Purdue’s frontcourt players.
It wasn’t just Happ who struggled with Purdue’s frontcourt, as the Boilermakers held Wisconsin to 20 points in the paint in the first meeting and have held their opponents to an average of 27.4 points a game in the lane. But if the combination of Happ, Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes can find a rhythm, the three will be able to play off of one another down low and create offense.
Trying to find ways of getting high percentage shots in the paint will be important, but that’s easier said than done with Purdue’s defense giving opponents fits this year. Purdue is holding teams to 39 percent from the field, which ranks second in the Big Ten, and only 64.4 points a game.
Whoever is in the low post, Wisconsin has to find a way to be aggressive on the offensive glass, as Purdue allows 8.9 offensive rebounds a game. Happ’s 75 offensive rebounds lead the team, and he’s done well working around the rim and even using his length to tip the ball out to the perimeter if he can’t grab it. After getting only seven offensive rebounds in the first meeting, UW needs to find a way to convert against a defense limiting teams to 7.1 second chance points.
Mid-Range Jumper: Can Wisconsin put together 40 minutes of offense?
There was a clear contrast with how Wisconsin played in the first half against Minnesota compared to the second 20 minutes, as the lack of efficiency in the second half caused a 10 minute scoring drought when the offense couldn’t string baskets together. UW could afford to do that against a Minnesota but won’t have that luxury against Purdue.
Putting two solid offensive halves together has been inconsistent this season, which was the case in UW’s first meeting against Purdue. Wisconsin shot 32.6 percent in the first half and saw that number jump to 46.2 percent in the second half to help keep the game within striking distance, but ultimately never got over the hump.
The Badgers have shot the ball much better and more balanced over the last 12 games, shooting 44.4 percent in the first half and 46.1 percent in the second half. It’s also worth noting that there have been 12 times Wisconsin has shot at least 50 percent from the field in a half this Big Ten season.
In order to come close to that number, Wisconsin must touch the post to open up looks on the perimeter, where the players must shoot a high percentage from. Over the last 12 games there have been at least five instances of Wisconsin making at least 40 percent of its threes on an average of 18.7 attempts a game. Purdue is third in the conference holding teams to 31 percent on the season and held Wisconsin to 29.4 percent in the six point loss.
Bronson Koenig played an excellent first half against Minnesota but didn’t attempt a field goal after halftime, a sign that the junior wasn’t aggressive enough in hunting his shot. Koenig can’t allow one of Purdue’s guards to take him out of the game offensively, as he is the critical element to making things click for the offense. Koenig should be able to have time to facilitate things on offense with Purdue only forcing 9.6 turnovers per game and the junior committing only three miscues in the last four outings.
3-Pointer: Can Wisconsin slow Purdue’s frontcourt down?
Purdue had its way against Wisconsin’s frontcourt in December, scoring 34 of its 61 points in the paint. That will likely spell trouble for Wisconsin’s defense is Purdue repeats that performance and can make themselves comfortable around the rim.
That certainly will be a challenge against A.J. Hammons, who leads Purdue’s frontcourt with 14.8 points per game on 59 percent shooting on his 9.3 shots per game. Vince Edwards is second on the team with 10.5 points and both Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas average 9.9 points. In total Purdue’s frontcourt averages 31.7 points a game in the paint during conference play and has scored 42 and 40 points in the paint over its last two games. And if that’s not daunting enough, Purdue scores an average of 12.5 points off its 12.2 offensive rebounds per game.
With Hammons, Edwards and Swanigan being three of Purdue’s top four scorers, it shouldn’t be a surprise that those three lead Purdue in offensive rebounds. Hammons averages 2.3 offensive rebounds a game and if Wisconsin doesn’t start to box out better, Hammons could give Wisconsin fits. The Badgers are allowing 11.6 offensive rebounds a game, which includes Iowa recording 20 offensive rebounds.
Although Wisconsin will try to rack up the fouls on Purdue’s bigs, the Boilermakers will be trying to do the same against Wisconsin. In particular Happ will have to be careful of how he defends, as his gambles on steal attempts have got him into trouble at times this season. Wisconsin has developed the ability to constantly rotate players to keep them fresh throughout the game, but Happ is the key piece.
The bench combination of Alex Illikainen and Charlie Thomas will need to be able to help provide a defensive lift in order to give the starters a rest. If Illikainen and Thomas can play strong defense, it could allow Gard to make sure his starting frontcourt of Brown, Happ and Hayes can stay fresh throughout the game to rebound and contest shots.
Since the Purdue game, Wisconsin has allowed a respectable 24.4 points in the paint. That trend will need to continue to force the Boilermakers to run their offense at the perimeter, not in the paint. Wisconsin forcing Purdue to attempt jump shots should be considered a win, as the Boilermakers are shooting 36.3 percent from three.