Wisconsin Still Sucks
It has been a trying week or two for Purdue basketball fans. We've gone over the close losses to Ohio State and Michigan State; the same week, women's basketball lost to bubble team Minnesota at home and completed a season sweep at the hands of Indiana in Mackey as well, the latter in a game where they held the Hoosiers to 4 first-quarter points and did not lead at halftime. (Fortunately, the women knocked off #10 Maryland tonight; if you can figure out how to bet on Versyp's squad, you must have the 2018 World Almanac.)
In theory, the next four games would provide a much-needed breather for the Good Guys as they shored up their defense and prepared for the long flight to NYC. In theory, they would roll over crappy teams from Wisconsin, Illinois and Minnesota, and a surprising Penn State squad would be similarly beaten in Mackey.
In theory, if you try to play football on a basketball court, you'll end up playing 3 on 5. (Wonder if Minnesota's figured out how to defend against that yet?)
For longer than anyone can remember - or at least since Dick Bennett coached the Badgers - Wisconsin has played the same style of basketball, one that is no doubt as appealing to fans in NYC and DC as Rutgers basketball is (thanks, Delany): clutching, holding and grabbing on defense; passing, cutting and passing some more on offense; getting all the defensive boards, not turning the ball over, running 3-5 guys onto the court who can hit from 25 feet, and basically squeezing the life and fun out of every game you watch.
Since the NCAA doesn't care about anything but money and can't be bothered to address things like how three part-time officials can't possibly watch 10 quality athletes for 40 minutes, and the Big Tenteen cares even more about money and less about enforcement, there has been no reason for Wisconsin to change their style of play - and it has produced some impressive results, particularly under Bo Ryan. Of course, it also produced an NCAA title game between Wisconsin and Duke, which for me is like being asked whether I want blue cheese or ranch with my wings. (Servers gotta ask, so I don't hold it against them, but my answer every time is "neither.") BTW, one of Wisconsin's four losses that year was at Rutgers. Go figure.
This year, the third under Greg Gard, light finally broke through the clouds in Madison, at least if you aren't a Wisconsin fan. The offense is still the same offense, but the defense is not the same - the Badgers were allowing opponents to shoot .508 from two, 77 points higher than last year, and were getting called for fouls at an entirely reasonable 31.2 FTA/100 FG, almost 9 full attempts higher than that runner-up squad under Ryan. The Badgers dropped faster than pundits could rewrite their "Wisconsin Big Ten Champions" previews, settling at a 4-10 mark that was only that good because they surprised Penn State in State College by a point during Delany Week.
Here are the teams Wisconsin had beaten during regular conference play: Indiana, Illinois.
Here are the top-100 kenpom teams Wisconsin beat in non-conference play: Western Kentucky. (Isn't it ironic?) By a point in Madison.
And yet. A Wisconsin team looking for all the world like it wanted to end the season now and move on to hockey put on enough of a defensive performance that the Good Guys were left, once again, thinking about what might have been instead of what was. The Purdue team that squeezed out four straight close wins could have added three more and been sitting at 26-2, #1 in the polls for the first time ever, in the driver's seat for the overall 1 seed, and all but certain to repeat as Big Tenteen champions.
This team, however, is just a little different. One end of the court (offense against OSU and Wisconsin, defense against MSU) just isn't right. Shot quality isn't there - yes, Purdue's offense is still 5th over that six-game stretch after the Iowa win, but that's still a drop from before this stretch. And the defense ... 132nd in that same period.
Some of that is no doubt the lack of experience on Purdue's bench. Sure, the starting lineup has been here forever (Purdue's 16th in minutes continuity), but get past them and it's two juniors and two freshmen, and the latter looked like freshmen tonight, with Haarms getting called for a foul seemingly on every possession, and Eastern overplaying on defense only to create an open man and a Wisconsin basket. (Mind you, Eastern did some heavy lifting of his own - stripping Ethan Happ and driving to draw a foul, anticipating a pass and ending up hitting a silly shot that had no business going in after he drew a foul (and hit the ensuing free throw), and getting another and-one off a steal. With practice, he can become an elite defender; he's just not quite got the right balance between risk and caution yet.) Cline is improving - Synergy actually lists him as Good in half-court defense, the same level as Haas, allowing 0.82 PPP - but isn't the same level as his senior teammates ... well, except one.
Dakota Mathias is 6'4", which is not bad but also not exactly the size you want someone guarding a 3 to be, and it's shown. Mathias' overall defensive numbers are not good: 0.915 PPP, and 1.145 PPP in spot-up situations. That jumps to 1.5 on no-dribble jumpers. That surprised me until I thought about it, and yeah, when Purdue goes small, someone's got to pretend to be a small forward, and when it's Dakota, well, there's only so much he can do.
Anyway, to discuss tonight some more, if we must: Purdue allowed 0.89 PPP to the Badgers and lost. They held Ethan Happ to 21 points on 23 shot equivalents and managed to foul him out at home in a game officiated by refs chosen by the Big Tenteen Conference. No Purdue player fouled out, although Haarms certainly would have picked up his fifth if he'd returned.
How did this happen? Outside shooting wasn't there: .235, with Carsen the only Boiler to hit anything, and he was 4 for 10 - given that he was 4 for 9 inside the arc, with some of those misses coming on ill-advised drives early in a possession, maybe he should have shot more than 10 threes. Inside shooting wasn't much better, at .484. Even free throws were off - not Eastern's fault (he was 3 for 4), but Haas split 8 (most likely because he had been hacked to pieces). 13 turnovers. A 28 ORtg for Mathias. PJ and Cline at 0.
But here's the crazy thing. Purdue's still, comparatively speaking, an excellent team. kenpom dropped them to 5th, and that's before counting Cincinnati's loss, while barttorvik has them 3rd still. The Good Guys have five losses, but none by more than four points, and only one coming at home. Wisconsin sucks, but playing in Madison still makes that a B-caliber game rather than, say, losing to them in Mackey. Yes, it's their first Quadrant 3 loss, but they're 5-3 in Quad 1 and likely to finish 6-1 in Quad 2.
Does this mean anything if they get bounced in the second round of the NCAAs? No. Does it make losing to a bad team feel any better? No. But as you can see from literally every other team Purdue is battling for a top seed, this isn't a year with a dominant team, and Purdue is still one of just two teams with enough quality on both offense and defense - looking at the entire season, mind you - to justify some good feelings about games in March. (MSU is the other, and I don't think they're any better off than the Boilers are right now.)
Sunday, the Good Guys come back to Mackey to take on Penn State. Once again, we'll hold our collective breath until they get things fixed and put up Ws like they did for more than two months, between the loss on Thanksgiving and the three turkeys we've just seen ... that again were games that just needed one or two breaks to be Ws. I don't think anyone else in the country has had all of their losses be that close. (I checked kenpom's top 15; feel free to correct me in the comments if I missed someone.)
Train's still rolling. Seems a little shaky right now, but the one streak that matters is the one you start March 15 or 16. Do what you gotta do, Boilers. Just because I'll probably live to be 120 doesn't mean I want to wait another 70 years to see a Final Four team.
Feature image courtesy of Purdue Athletics, taken by Charles Jischke at the Purdue-IU WBB game Monday night. I didn't really feel like pulling anything with Wisconsin fans in it.