Broken Down Defense

No doubt about it, this season isn't what many expected for Wisconsin. The Badgers entered Saturday night's contest with the second best start in school history. Against Purdue Saturday night, though, they struggled defensively early on, and may have revealed a flaw in their armor.

MADISON — The Wisconsin men's basketball team has accomplished a remarkable feat throughout this season: leading the nation in scoring defense at 54.1 points per game. That kind of defense wins championships. This is not to be unexpected under Bo Ryan, as all of his teams play fundamentally sound defense. And as the early season wins became long streaks, the Badger defense became more convincing and consistent.

Wisconsin's stifling defense has held opponents to a .379 defensive field goal percentage that is the second best in the Big Ten. All this made UW's defensive struggles against 24th-ranked Purdue all the more shocking.

"They're more athletic on the perimeter," UW coach Bo Ryan said. "They are very athletic and rangy on the perimeter and that caused our perimeter guys some problems."

Purdue's two leading scorers, E'Twaun Moore and Keaton Grant, are both under 6-foot-5 guards who rarely turn the ball. For the Badgers to be successful, they would need to force turnovers and limit Purdue's shooters from spreading the floor.

Unfortunately, during the first half the Badgers did not accomplish either of those tasks.

"They shot and hit some tough threes," said Ryan. "That's what we needed to handle better." Purdue's incredible shooting led to an early 17-8 deficit for UW. Even defensive wizard Michael Flowers was burnt by three-pointers and drives to the hoop.

In an effort to solve this problem Ryan inserted a smaller lineup where no player was taller than 6-7 forward Marcus Landry. That didn't work at all, as UW fell behind 25-12, while Purdue shot 10-for-16 from the field.

This style adjustment isn't new to the Badgers, as their adaptability has been present throughout the entire season. Wisconsin is one of only four teams with two wins against teams ranked currently in the top 15. Those numbers, however, don't matter when the opponent shoots 65 percent from the field in the first half, including 6-for-10 from the three-point line. Combine that with just five turnovers, and Purdue might have been playing its best half of the year Saturday at the Kohl Center.

"We shot a very high percentage from the field, and we stretched the defense," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "With their size, we had to stretch them and make some perimeter jumpers. We were able to do that."

The second half would start much the same way as Purdue hit two early threes to take a 48-34 lead. The difference between the two team's shooting percentages was so far apart that Purdue's accuracy (64 percent) almost doubled Wisconsin's (35). And in addition to protecting the basketball, Purdue forced 15 UW giveaways.

Really, to be fair, the Boilermakers didn't just shoot well—they were lights out for most of the game. On some nights in basketball, if the other team is just unconscious there isn't much that the defense can do.

"From three-point range, they got 18 points on 10 shots," Ryan said. "That's almost two a possession. They were guys running at them and guys who helped them recover, but they don't need a whole lot of time to knock them down and they did."

Wisconsin worked hard to slow Purdue's attack in the second half—to considerable success. The Badgers dove for loose balls and contested deep shots. Those efforts started getting converted into plays as Wisconsin whittled the deficit down to just eight points after a block by Brian Butch and then a steal by Marcus Landry on the next play with just under eight minutes left in the game.

While the lead constantly changed, Wisconsin was playing better defense down the stretch, while Purdue's light-outs shooting touch was no longer there. The lead got down to four points with just under four minutes remaining as Purdue missed several free throws and Wisconsin finally began forcing some turnovers. For several moments, the Badgers defensive intensity picked up as they began making plays. First, a forced jump ball and then Wisconsin grabbed three defensive rebounds on consecutive plays.

Unfortunately, it just proved to be too little too late. Purdue made its free throws and Wisconsin lost 72-67. Truly, the first half might have been one of the worst played under Bo Ryan at the Kohl Center.

The second half was much better for the Badgers, but they still never made up the ground lost in the first half. The top four leading scorers shot a combined 21-for-32 for a 66 percent and 53 points.

"Defensively, in the second half—other than the two early threes—I thought we did a pretty good, a real good job," Ryan said.

Everything they tried was working until the last few minutes, but by that the only Wisconsin was going to win was with Purdue missed free throws—and that didn't happen.

The Badgers just couldn't stop Purdue from scoring.

"By them shooting the three well, especially in the first half, it was tough to pull back from and we just didn't do it," Ryan said.

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