WEST LAFAYETTE – Toughness.
It was the one word thrown around most often after No. 23 Wisconsin slipped past third-ranked Purdue 74-69 tonight at Mackey Arena, sending the Big Ten-favorite Boilermakers to just 1-2 in conference play.
Toughness. The Badgers had it, the Boilermakers didn't – at least, not enough of it. The lack of it cost the hosts the ability to defend at the level necessary to stop a star like Wisconsin's Jonathan Davis, who exploded for 37 points (27 in the second half) and 14 rebounds.
"Wisconsin was just mentally and physically tougher than we were," Purdue coach Matt Painter said. "The thing I've harped to our guys throughout the year is, 'Who are you when you miss your free throws? Who are you when you don't have a great field goal percentage. Can you still win those games?' We're just trying to get (Purdue's players) – from a preparation standpoint – just more dialed in and just being a tougher team. Right now, we're really searching for that from a defensive standpoint. Johnny Davis really exposed that."
Davis was brilliant most of the night and he deserves all of the plaudits he will likely get in the coming days, but this is three times now Purdue has let a talented scorer get away from them. It didn't cost them when Ty Gordon scored 29 points for Nicholls State in a 104-90 Boilermakers win, but Purdue has lost two Big Ten games thanks to mammoth performances from first Rutgers' Ron Harper Jr. and now Davis. Painter's Purdue teams have long prided themselves on the ability to at least make life difficult for an opposing team's best player and make him earn everything. Harper, Gordon and Davis have not had to do so. That's not to say Davis didn't make any tough shots today, because he certainly did, but there were too many open looks for a player who scored half of the Badgers' points.
Part of the problem was Jaden Ivey getting in foul trouble early in the game. Ivey, who started the game guarding Davis, his former U19 National Team teammate, picked up his third foul early in the second half and Purdue mostly switched sophomore Ethan Morton on to Davis to help Ivey avoid a fourth whistle. Morton was game and he's a good defender, but he admitted he let the star sophomore get free more than he would have liked.
Purdue's defensive issues extend beyond its inability to slow down Davis, an issue that will vex many teams this season. The Boilermakers also struggled to defend the 3-point line for the third straight game, mostly getting lucky the Badgers missed a bevy of open looks and made only 6 of 24. Whether it's communication issues, a lack of discipline or something else, Purdue is not a good enough defensive team to win the Big Ten right now. If it doesn't get better, it will be headed for an early exit in the NCAA Tournament.
"You just don't announce your basketball identity, you don't announce your defensive identity, you earn it," Painter said. "You earn those things. We just haven't gotten there as a team. (Before tonight), we keep winning games and I keep saying, 'We're not very good on defense' and it sounds like coach's talk. But it's not coach's talk. We're not very good on defense. We have to be better individually and we have to be better collectively. We just have to keep working. It's not the end of the world, but obviously Wisconsin out-played us."
The good news is Purdue's players know they weren't good enough tonight. Zach Edey, who scored a career-high 24 points, including 19 in the second half, grimaced through a postgame interview in which he spent most of the five minutes staring daggers through the floor. When he did speak, he acknowledged the Badgers had out-toughed and out-worked his own team.
Edey was hard on himself, admitting he got pushed around in the first half, but his performance in the second half was one of the game's silver linings for Purdue. For one of the first times in his career, the 7-foot-4 sophomore morphed into a dominant go-to scorer. He did it through sheer force of will in the second half, burying himself in the lane and getting deep position against the under-sized Wisconsin big men, presenting a big target for Purdue's guards and then finishing at the rim or drawing a foul. Uncharacteristically, he went only 4 of 8 at the foul line, keeping him from an even bigger night.
Wisconsin simply had no answers other than to hope Edey missed. Usually the best option for stopping a talented back-to-the-basket big man is to front him and then help on the lob over the top. But Edey makes a mockery of that strategy because he can catch a lob far above where anyone could get a hand on it with weak-side help. Wisconsin tried to slow him down with physical post defense and it worked for the first half, but in the second half Edey played like he was on a mission. Purdue is going to need more of that.
After many picked them to win the Big Ten before the season, the Boilermakers have lost two of their first three Big Ten games and their path to a 25th conference title has narrowed considerably. The softest part of their schedule is coming up with games against Penn State, a disappointing Michigan, Nebraska, Indiana and Northwestern in their next six. They have to make some noise during that stretch or they'll be eliminated from the conference race before the midpoint of the schedule. To right the ship, they have to learn from this loss.
"We just have to grow up a little bit and be tougher," Painter said. "That was a great lesson for us. You hate to have a loss for that lesson, but that's part of competition. ... Our guys care. It's just a hard thing when you get ranked high to still have that understanding of what discipline you need to be a successful player, to be a successful team. That's why losses normally shape you. It's like, 'We can't go back to this.'"