Boilermakers begin quest for elusive Big 10 title
Purdue boasts one of the nation’s most talented front lines and enters Big Ten play with its best opportunity for a regular-season conference championship since sharing it six seasons ago.
Expectations are a bit more tame for defending champion Wisconsin.
The 14th-ranked Boilermakers begin their quest for that elusive title while looking to end a four-game losing streak against the Badgers on Tuesday night in Madison.
Purdue (12-1) finished under .500 in back-to-back seasons before going 21-13 and qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in 2014-15. It was a big step for coach Matt Painter’s squad, which received another boost to the program when five-star big man Caleb Swanigan committed this offseason.
Swanigan is averaging 11.3 points and 9.2 rebounds in a starting role alongside 7-foot-2 leading scorer Isaac Haas and forward Vince Edwards. Seven-footer A.J. Hammons started for the majority of his first three seasons, but he’s having his most productive year coming off the bench.
Hammons finished with 21 points and 10 rebounds in last Tuesday’s 68-55 home win over Vanderbilt, helping the Boilermakers bounce back from a loss to in-state rival Butler on Dec. 19.
It marked his fourth double-double, creating a customary inside presence that offset Purdue going 2 of 19 from 3-point range. Swanigan finished with 13 points.
"The 3-pointers are a big part of our game, and when we make only 2 of 19, guys get frustrated, and you have to find another way," Painter said. "In the second half, A.J. set the tone in the paint on both ends of the court."
Hammons didn’t play in the two preseason games and was benched for the first two in the regular season by Painter, who said in November that Hammons "has to take care of some business internally in our program, especially as a senior."
His teammates have noticed Hammons taking charge more as the season goes on.
"When he is amped up, ready and engaged, A.J. is the best big man in the country," Edwards said.
Many believed Frank Kaminsky held that distinction last season as Wisconsin made a second straight run to the Final Four before losing to Duke in the national championship game. But Kaminsky and other major contributors are gone, and the Badgers (8-5) are having trouble adjusting.
They lost the season opener at home to Western Illinois and dropped close games to Milwaukee and Marquette at the Kohl Center. Then, legendary coach Bo Ryan abruptly retired following a win over Texas A&M-Corpus Christi on Dec. 15 and handed the reins to longtime assistant Greg Gard.
Wisconsin led by as many as 30 in the second half of Gard’s debut Wednesday against Green Bay, but the Badgers barely hung on for an 84-79 home victory.
The near collapse put a damper on any celebration for Gard, who essentially is auditioning for the full-time job.
"There’s a lot of things we can learn from that we did really, really well," Gard said. "And there’s a lot of things, obviously, that we have to correct."
Nigel Hayes scored a team-high 24 points, and redshirt freshman Ethan Happ added 16.
"It was embarrassing to our program. It was embarrassing to us. I know it made me sick," Happ said. "I’m sure it made the other guys sick as well. We cannot play like that in the Big Ten season and expect to win at any point in the game."
Wisconsin extended its winning streak over the Boilermakers to four by outscoring them 41-16 in the second half of a 71-51 victory in last season’s Big Ten tournament.