Another day, another frustrating Badger game as the team moves to 8-6 on the season (Purdue is now 13-1). This was actually one of the better games played by the team so far this year, holding one of the better teams in the country to 61 points. They were tied at halftime and hung close for most of the second half, but Purdue was able to build a lead behind the strong play of AJ Hammons, and the Badgers weren’t able to finish off the comeback.

Hammons was a beast down low, and the Badger front court struggled to contain him and got into foul trouble in the process. Ethan Happ had three fouls pretty early in the second half, Vitto Brown had three as well, and Alex Illikainen ended up with four while soaking up minutes for the other two. Illikainen managed his best game as a Badger, finishing with 10 points in only 11 minutes while hitting two big threes down the stretch. He’s certainly earned himself some more minutes moving forward.

Unfortunately, Illikainen, Happ and Brown were no match for Hammons inside. Hammons, the reigning Co-player of the Week in the Big Ten, ended with 24 points (9-14 on field goals), 7 rebounds and 2 blocks. Purdue went on an 8-0 run in the second half in which it constantly fed Hammons in the post, and the Badgers were never able to fully recover. They trimmed the lead to five in the last two minutes behind a few big shots from Illikainen, but sharpshooter Dakota Matthias hit his only buckets of the game, back-to-back threes, to put the contest out of reach.

Overall it was a pretty solid showing from the Badgers. They finally put together a complete game on the defensive side of the ball, but Hammons exposed a big weakness of theirs: interior defense. Happ and Brown are solid defenders, but they’re undersized and will be susceptible to big inside scorers like Hammons. The Badgers were able to hold the Boilermakers to under 45% from the field, but they were predictably outrebounded 36-26, and Purdue got to the line 14 times to the Badgers’ meager eight attempts.

For as well as the defense played on the perimeter, the offense again struggled to put up points. They shot under 39% from the floor and an ugly 29.4% from three. Nigel Hayes was his usual useful self, but he needs more offensive contributions from the rest of the team, especially Bronson Koenig. Koenig was complacent throughout the game, somehow only accruing a 13% usage rating while playing for 36 minutes. He finished with 7 points on 3-8 shooting, and simply wasn’t aggressive enough to get the offense moving. Coach Gard will be tasked with finding ways for Koenig to get into more of a controlled yet aggressive rhythm on offense to help open up the floor for the rest of the team.

Purdue won because their front court dominated for the majority of the game. Happ and Brown were largely swallowed up on both ends of the floor, only combining for a meager 6 points and 5 rebounds. Showalter played pretty well, though it was his man (Matthias) that got open off a screen to hit the two dagger threes in the waning minutes. Jordan Hill and Alex Illikainen have played well enough under Gard to earn some extra minutes off the bench.

This young Badger team and coach Gard have their work cut out for them if they want to escape Big Ten play with a tournament bid. Playing a very good team this well is a decent start, but they need to protect their home court better and pull off some upsets if they want to change the direction this season is heading in.


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