Athletic big men are a rare specialty in college basketball and that makes Purdue Boilermaker JaJuan Johnson a special player. With uncommon athleticism for a man his size, he runs down the court like a point guard and jumps like a wing player.
"He's an improved player," said Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan. "More active, strength, knowledge, experience."
Conventional wisdom holds that one man does not make a team. Yet, Johnson nearly single-handedly beat Wisconsin in the first half. The 6-foot-10 center had 14 points in the first 15 minutes – while the Badgers only had a mere 11 at that point.
Wisconsin might not face another player with those unique talents again for the rest of the season. But the Badgers better hope not. Johnson exposed and outperformed Wisconsin for quite awhile.
"I was trying to be aggressive and crash the boards," said Johnson. "[Purdue coach Matt Painter] said to try and take them off the dribble."
Wisconsin used several of big men to try and control Johnson. Especially in the first half, nothing seemed to work. Some of his "highlights" include a breakaway jam, a pull-up jumper and a tip-dunk that ignited the crowd at the Mackey Arena. During his dominant opening half, he shot an absurd 86 percent from the field.
The Badgers tried to correct the situation for the last 20 minutes, but it was too little, too late.
"Second half, [Johnson] wasn't as productive cause he had some other guys who pick up one another," said Ryan "That's how certain programs maintain."
When Wisconsin tried to cover Johnson with one man, each player lacked one important aspect. All of the centers were over 6-foot-9 and were just too slow to keep up with Johnson, particularly Jon Leuer, who struggled the most. The forwards, each of whom give up more than three inches to Johnson, had difficulty dealing with his height.
The Badger's best post player, Marcus Landry, struggled mightily. Landry couldn't stop Johnson from scoring or getting rebounds. Additionally, in one of his worst offensive performances, Landry also shot 3-for-15 from the field as Johnson's length clearly bothered the Badgers. "He's just an athletic big man who's come a long way," said Landry. "We prepared for that, but he just tore us up."
When Wisconsin couldn't deal with Johnson's offensive attack, they fouled him. On several plays, Johnson was fouled as Wisconsin failed to get proper spacing and position on him. He responded by hitting 4-for-6 from the foul line.
"We knew we had to get a body on him and be physical," said Badger forward Joe Krabbenhoft. "But he opened the game up big for them. We felt good right away, but he kept them in it and was a force right away." During crucial stretches of the game, Johnson controlled and limited Wisconsin. The final totals for Johnson – 20 points, 10 boards and four offensive rebounds – suggest that Johnson simply had his way with the Badgers.
"He got them inspired and they kind of rallied around the offensive rebounds," said Ryan. "He had a couple, more than a couple of buckets [from offensive rebounds]."
Without Johnson, Wisconsin still might have lost this game. The Badgers had twice as many turnovers, shot just 37 percent from the field, and only went 4-for-6 from the free throw line while Purdue went 13-for-19.
But the Badgers must use this loss to benefit themselves. Wisconsin learned it couldn't stop athletic big men using the same tactics as before. A change needs to be made in personal or philosophy.
Just as with Achilles, the smallest problem can end up creating the worst results down the road.