The Badgers only play Purdue once this year, and that game comes tonight at Mackey Arena. The Badgers have struggled over the last four decades in West Lafayette, earning just one victory since 1972. That win came during Gene Keady's final season, and their 1-3 start has fans in Madison concerned about the Badgers.
The Wisconsin basketball blog Hoops Marinara, now an offshoot of Bucky's Fifth Quarter, was kind enough to do a Q&A with me as a preview of tonight's 7 p.m. game on ESPN.
T-Mill: Since 1972 Mackey Arena has been a house of horrors for Wisconsin. They have one win in the last 40 years. What gives?
Phil: An equally amazing stat is that Wisconsin did not beat Purdue even once during the 1980s. The Badgers only beat the Hoosiers once in that decade too. So as you can see, most of the problem is because for more than half of that 40-year span, the Badger program pretty much stunk in general. Wisconsin's record during that time in games played inside Indiana state borders is 10-65, compared to a 48-111 overall record against Indiana-based schools. It's clear the state of Indiana put some kind of hex on the Badgers. Don't worry about us though, we comfort ourselves by remembering UW's Elite Eight win over Gene Keady in 2000.
Nowadays, Bo Ryan is 1-7 at Purdue, but the Boilers are only 2-6 against him in Madison ... so about even. I think most Badgers fans respect Matt Painter more than any other competing coach in the Big Ten because of his emphasis on toughness and defense, which mirrors some of what Ryan and Dick Bennett built at UW. And that gives Purdue an edge because it can "out-Badger the Badgers" using a better talent base.
T-Mill: What has happened to Wisconsin so far and why are they suddenly vulnerable in Madison?
Phil: Coach Ryan would have you believe Jared Berggren is a 40 ppg scorer in practice and the team just needs to hit shots. That's the brutal truth to some extent. The main problem, however, is that the margin for error is so small right now due to a few mistakes/bad luck in recruiting from 2008-10. The team is short on playmakers, which puts a lot a pressure on Jordan Taylor. Without Jon Leuer to relieve that defensive attention, Taylor's supporting cast is simply too inconsistent.
It's not hard to see that the Big Ten is getting stronger while Wisconsin has remained consistently "good." Some people think fans have become accustomed to success in Madison, and thus the crowds have lacked the liveliness of yesteryear. Their consecutive sellout streak ended earlier this season. Though the Kohl Center probably isn't as noisy or intimidating as it used to be, that makes little difference compared to the players on the floor.
T-Mill: Given that the Badgers already have three losses, do you see them playing the role of spoiler the rest of the way as a team not in the title race, but definitely one that is dangerous?
Phil: The term spoiler to me implies a team that has nothing else to play for, which is certainly not true. You're right, a conference title just isn't in the cards this season, but Wisconsin's focus going forward should be on putting together the best possible tournament resume possible. There are still plenty of chances for quality wins out there during Big Ten play. Plus, I don't think a 1-3 or 1-4 start changes the way any coach will approach playing Wisconsin. So I expect the same type of battles we see every year, just with the Kohl Center not being the automatic win it used to be.
T-Mill: What are Wisconsin's strengths this year aside from Jordan Taylor?
Phil: Defense. The trademark avoidance of turnovers and emphasis on defensive rebounding are still there too. The team has a couple of versatile forwards in Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans that can guard larger or smaller opponents. To a man, the roster is not blessed with quickness, but the Badgers are adept at help defense. The starters average 3.4 years in the program (1 SO, 1 JR, 2 RS JR, 1 SR), so it has been drilled into them. Believe it or not, I still think 3-point shooting could still wind up being a strength, just because a number of guys on the team can shoot it. on the team can hit them. You'd also get a lot of disagreement on whether Taylor has even been a strength. He's has looked very tentative. Taylor is doing worse in every statistical category except for steals compared to last season and is shooting under 40%.
T-Mill: What is Wisconsin missing from being a typical Wisconsin team?
Phil: Depth is one concern. Sophomore sub Ben Brust started strong, which covered up the fact that this is one of UW's weakest benches in recent memory. Freshman Frank Kaminsky surprised a lot of folks by playing right away, but he is the only big man off the bench really. Senior Rob Wilson has spent more time in the doghouse than on the court and another freshman guard (Traevon Jackson) is the ninth man. As I alluded to with the recruiting concerns, a consistent number two scoring option is really non-existent. Ryan Evans is getting there, but neither he nor Jared Berggren are there yet. Offensive aggressiveness is another huge problem. The Bruesewitz we saw shine in last year's NCAA tournament has been non-existent. Brust and Evans seem to shoot without any conscience, but no one takes the ball to the rim -- Taylor included. No one is drawing fouls with any regularity. The Badgers have been shooting more 3-pointers than free throws for several years now, but this season Wisconsin ranks 321st out of 345 teams in free throws attempts per field goal attempt.
T-Mill: What is it about Purdue that scares you going into Thursday?
Phil: Several things. I fear a slow start in a hostile environment. Wisconsin needs to break out of their shooting slump early to avoid any "here we go again" syndrome. I am worried about stopping dribble penetration by any of the quicker Purdue guards. Similarly, LewJack also gives Jordan Taylor fits defensively because he is tenacious and strong. Having to watch Ryne Smith hit 3s and then mean mug for two hours scares me too. (No offense, he's just the Boiler that irks me the most. It's an honor -- ask Brian Cardinal.)
T-Mill: What is the deal with the clocks at the Kohl Center?
Phil: Daktronics told the university the delay between clock controls and the stadium's "ribbon" display happens more often than we think but is rarely noticed, as if that should make everyone feel better. Personally I think the whole thing was overblown. Everyone should know the clock on the floor is going to take precedence. Had they synched things up earlier, the Badgers still would have lost.