Big questions emerge after loss to Purdue

MADISON, Wis. — The round of applause from fans was polite but restrained. It conveyed the kind of sad, dispirited tone one might hear for a middle-aged golfer walking the 18th fairway for the final time at a major he once owned, 12-over par with no chance to make the weekend cut. How do you respond when watching individuals defined by their successes sputter at the finish line in their last appearance?

At the Kohl Center on Sunday, it was with confusion and stunned hushes. Wisconsin forward Mike Bruesewitz draped a towel over his mouth. Center Jared Berggren rested his chin on his fist. Forward Ryan Evans stared blankly into the distance.

On senior day, the Badgers’ starting frontcourt players left the court one by one in the final minute, three seniors finally powerless over the outcome. Purdue had stormed back from a double-digit first-half deficit to muscle out a 69-56 victory against No. 17 Wisconsin and crush the Badgers’ Big Ten title hopes.

For three players so accustomed to winning at home in their careers — they entered the day 61-7 there the past four seasons — it was a difficult thing to walk off any other way. And the repercussions could be felt soon in the NCAA Tournament.

“It’s tough,” Berggren said. “Just thinking about all the time you’ve put in with these guys, all the memories you’ve made. This is obviously a big part of our lives.  . . . For it to come to an end playing at the Kohl Center like this, it’s an emotional moment, especially after a loss. I think I was probably hurting more about that, to be honest. This is a pretty big loss for us. That hurts.”

Wisconsin lost to an unranked Big Ten opponent at the Kohl Center for just the third time in Badgers coach Bo Ryan’s 12 seasons. During that span, the Badgers are 69-3 in such games. But this Wisconsin team also became the first to lose at home on senior day under Ryan, who had been 11-0.

Sunday’s shocking result now leaves serious questions as Wisconsin (20-9, 11-5) prepares for postseason play.

First off, the Badgers can forget about a conference championship. Wisconsin, which began the day just one game out of first place in the Big Ten behind Indiana, could miss out altogether on a first-round bye in the conference tournament as a top-four seed depending on how Michigan State, Ohio State and Michigan perform in the final week of the regular season.

More pressing is what Wisconsin’s performance means on the court moving forward. Because if the Badgers can’t win at home against a middling Big Ten team in Purdue (14-15, 7-9) with minimal postseason hopes for the NIT, how can they be expected to contend in the NCAA Tournament? How do we know this wasn’t a sign the team’s weaknesses are easy to exploit rather than a one-game hiccup?

The answers will reveal themselves over the next month, of course. But at the very least, it doesn’t bode well for a team that needs to play its best basketball now that March has arrived.

On Sunday, the Badgers were far from their best. Wisconsin scored 20 second-half points and missed its final 18 3-point attempts. The Badgers clanked all 12 of their second-half 3-point tries.

Wisconsin also was outrebounded and outhustled — two categories in which the Badgers are rarely beaten. Purdue tallied twice as many offensive rebounds (12-6) and out-rebounded Wisconsin 39-27 overall.

“I thought we did a lot of little things,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said. “For us, this game is huge, not just because we won at Wisconsin, which is almost impossible to do, but it was how we did it.”

In addition to a surprising lack of energy, other problems resurfaced, including Wisconsin’s propensity to be too reliant on the 3-pointer. Berggren and Frank Kaminsky, who stand 6-foot-10 and 6-11, respectively, combined to make 1 of 10 3-pointers. Without their services under the basket, the Badgers had little chance to rebound missed shots.

“They’re checking on the last time we went oh-fer,” Ryan said. “Those are the most wide-open 3s we probably had all year other than maybe one. As far as kickouts, we’re watching Jared in practice knocking those down. He’s become pretty comfortable with that shot. And I can’t believe that he had that many. Both he and Frank. But we still need to get more in the paint.”

Problems with point guard play, which had been an issue earlier in the year, also materialized again. Traevon Jackson and George Marshall combined to tally three assists and five turnovers — a cringe-worthy ratio for Ryan, whose slowdown approach causes his teams typically to value possessions more than any in the country.

And even defensively, where Wisconsin has earned its stripes over the years, the Badgers looked average at best. They were sliced up at the 3-point line by Boilermakers guard D.J. Byrd, who buried six long balls. Inside, they surrendered countless floaters to guards Terone Johnson and Ronnie Johnson, who combined for 24 points.

Evans said the game reminded him of Wisconsin’s infamous 2010 NCAA Tournament loss to Cornell in the round of 32 during his freshman season, when the Big Red found similar success in the lane and scored 87 points.

Wisconsin had entered Sunday’s game allowing just 50.9 points per game at home this season.

“I was concerned that we couldn’t score 50 points,” Painter said. “If you’ve watched us play this year and you’ve watched Wisconsin, I don’t think that’s an unfair assessment. I was really concerned if we could get to 50 and we could grind it out and hopefully get a victory.”

Yet Purdue breezed past 50 when Byrd drilled his fifth 3-pointer, giving the Boilermakers a 52-45 lead with 10:39 remaining in the game.

Wisconsin led 36-24 on a Jackson jumper with 4:24 remaining in the first half, and it appeared the Badgers were headed for another laugher. They had won three straight games by more than 20 points for the first time in Big Ten play since 1912.

By the end of Sunday’s game, nobody on Wisconsin’s team was laughing anymore.

Bruesewitz, for his part, said any inkling of long-term ramifications from the loss were nonexistent.

“There’s no concern,” he said. “We’re fine. We just had an off night.”

A similar off night in three weeks, and Wisconsin will be sent packing early from the NCAA Tournament, its three senior starters walking off the court for the final occasion — this time with no chance of redemption.

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