WEST LAFAYETTE – A Big Ten basketball game – with all that description entails – has broken out at Mackey Arena tonight.
Purdue and Wisconsin have dueled through 20 minutes in which neither team cracked 45% from the field and Wisconsin went 1 for 12 from beyond the 3-point line. There were players on the floor on seemingly every other possession and every basket felt like a struggle. This has been the conference's brand for years now and it's fitting league play resumed with two of the Big Ten's better teams engaging in such a quintessentially Big Ten game. At the break, Wisconsin leads 29-24 thanks to an advantage in defensive intensity and overall want-to.
The good news for Purdue is it is at full strength. Blackhawk Christian graduate and Fort Wayne native Caleb Furst, who missed the game against Nicholls State on Dec. 29 in the team's health and safety protocol, returned tonight, coming off the bench 4:55 into the game and seeing six minutes in the first half. Furst was somewhat rusty – coach Mat Painter said he had not had a full practice before yesterday since before the Crossroads Classic on Dec. 18 – and it's unclear how much he'll be able to contribute tonight.
Furst's return aside, this was not a feel-good half for the Boilers. Both of the problems that plagued them in recent weeks – defensive rebounding and guarding the 3-point line – have reared their ugly heads tonight. The defensive glass is a more obvious issue because Wisconsin has four offensive rebounds and has turned those second chances into seven points, compared to only two for Purdue. The Boilermakers are not really getting out-muscled on the glass, but rather having a trouble just finding a man to put a body on when the ball goes up.
The 3-point defense was actually a more significant problem in the first half, but you wouldn't know it from the box score. Wisconsin unleashed a steady parade of long-distance bricks, befitting the Badgers' status as the No. 300 3-point shooting team in the country (they were shooting 30.4% from deep coming in). But Wisconsin's inability to knock down shots does not mean Purdue's defense has been good. In fact, the Badgers have had a bevy of open looks because of over-rotations or missed assignments from the Boilermakers. Wisconsin has moved the ball well and it's likely the Badgers will hit at least a few in the second half unless Purdue tightens up. This is the third straight game the Boilers have really struggled to prevent open 3-pointers and it will bite them eventually, even if it hasn't yet.
While Wisconsin has missed just about everything from the outside, Purdue has returned the favor. Outside of three Mason Gillis 3s (including one that cut the deficit to three late in the half and got the Mackey Arena crowd into the game for the first time), the Boilers were 1 for 8 from beyond the arc, despite some good looks of their own. But Purdue also took it one step further, missing from all over the court. Post-ups for Trevion Williams and Zach Edey yielded just three baskets in seven attempts, despite Purdue having a size and strength advantage down low. Wisconsin is playing its typically physical brand of defense and the officials have not given Purdue a lot of help, but with the Boilers struggling from outside, it will have to rely on Williams and Edey to carry the load down low. Edey was frustrated enough by the physicality that he picked up an offensive foul late in the half throwing an elbow after catching the ball on the block.
Overall, Wisconsin has had more energy and has been the better team through 20 minutes. If that doesn't change in the second half, the Boilermakers will slip to 1-2 in Big Ten play and their path to a conference title might start to close far earlier than anyone thought.