Purdue vs. Wisconsin preview: B5Q grills Hammer and Rails

Sandra Dukes-USA TODAY Sports

Mackey Arena has always been an unforgiving venue for Wisconsin, and now a promising season hangs in the balance. T-Mill from Hammer and Rails gives us the scoop on AJ Hammons and a new batch of Boiler freshmen.

After rewatching the Minnesota game on DVR the other night, the only comforting conclusion I came to was that the Gophers played a near-perfect game. That's easier to do when the defense is gift wrapping every drive into the paint and sitting its best big man for almost the whole first half.

But I digress. We could rehash everything that is wrong with Wisconsin (16-3, 3-3 Big Ten) right now, but that would beat a drum we're all sick of hearing. Sam Dekker's performance on Wednesday is one reason for Badger fans to be optimistic, as is the fact that Purdue (13-6, 3-3) is a young team simply isn't quite as good as UW's previous three opponents.

Purdue has already played one game this week with heavy hearts after a terrible on-campus shooting took the life of one of it's students (who was a Milwaukee native in fact). The Boilermakers immediately dropped a tough one to Northwestern, yet still find themselves tied with the Badgers for fifth place in the conference standings. The venerable Travis Miller, founder of Hammer and Rails, agreed to fill us in on what's up with the Boilers this season.

B5Q: The way Purdue's double-overtime loss at Northwestern went down had to be a momentum killer for a young Boilermaker team that had won three straight Big Ten games. What have you seen from this group so far this season that encourages you about their ability to bounce back after a few days off this week?

Hammer & Rails (Travis): Strangely, what gives me hope is this team’s inconsistency. They can looks very good one moment and very, very bad the next, sometimes within the same game. Our game against Oklahoma State back in November was a prime example. We dug a big hole in the first half, but were able to fight back against one of the nation’s most talented teams in the second half and make it a close game.

To me, this team has a lot of talent, but it lacks the ability to consistently play to that talent.

B5Q: When sophomore center A.J. Hammons should have been taking over in overtime against Northwestern on Tuesday, he shrunk in the moment. He missed free throws and shied away from taking big shots against smaller defenders. Despite all his talent, there were some effort issues with Hammons last year as I recall. Is Hammons any better than he was last year?

H&R: Yes and no. Against Ohio State he played like a physical force of nature and potentially the best player in the Big Ten. Against Penn State he hit big free throws and was big on the game-winning play. Then you have the Northwestern game and the fact that twice he has not taken a single field goal attempt in a game. The Northwestern game was so frustrating because every semi-competent post player for the Wildcats was out and he should have attacked the basket on every single play, but we didn’t do that. If he ever puts it all together he is a lottery pick talent, but until then he is ridiculously inconsistent, much like the rest of Purdue.

B5Q: A rash of offseason transfers robbed Purdue of its frontcourt depth this season -- three former players over 6'8" are now a part of other programs in 2013-14. In retrospect, how can you explain this "unperfect storm" of circumstances? Were these all recruiting mistakes that eventually shook themselves out at the same time? I know Badger fans are happy not to see Sandi Marcius again...

H&R: I think it was just guys not wanting to "Be 12-month players" to borrow coach Painter’s words. The only major surprise was losing Donnie Hale, who left Purdue for Bellarmine in October. We knew Jacob Lawson was unhappy and Marcius, as a redshirt junior, could be a one-year transfer if he graduated (he did, and went to DePaul). Of the four we lost I think the one that would help the most is Marcius. He was really coming into his own late last season and pairing him with Hammons right now would be potentially devastating.

B5Q: In spite of their personnel losses and an injury to Travis Carroll, the Boilermakers are still a good rebounding team, especially on the offensive end (37.5 OR%). How is this happening and who deserves most of the credit?

H&R: Look at guys like fifth-year transfer Errick Peck, Jay Simpson, and freshman Basil Smotherman. Smotherman is a high-energy freshman and I wish we could bottle his energy and give it to everyone else. Peck has been a great garbage basket guy and was a high school teammate of Kelsey Barlow. I really wish we had picked him instead of Barlow now.

B5Q: Talk about this current class of freshmen that Matt Painter has brought in. The potential stars seem to be sharpshooter Kendall Stephens (a former UW target) and the bouncy Basil Smotherman on the wing. Does Bryson Scott look like your future point guard? When you add in redshirt freshman big Jay Simpson, how close does this group compare to how you felt about the Baby Boilers (Hummel, Johnson, Moore and Martin) early on?

H&R: I don’t think they are quite as consistent as the Baby Boilers, but we are seeing that having four freshmen come in and immediately run roughshod over the Big Ten is rare. I like all of them individually, but Scott is struggling right now and Simpson is not quite as reliable as Hammons. All four of them have a ton of promise and coach Painter has four very nice pieces coming in next season with top 100 guys Isaac Haas (a 7-foot triple-double machine from Alabama) and Vince Edwards, along with sharpshooter Dakota Mathias and underrated Jacquil Taylor. Next season’s team will have a ton of individual talent and no scholarship seniors, so the potential is there for two very good years.

B5Q: From a Wisconsin standpoint, we've seen a repeated inability to stop dribble penetration from quick guards and wings during conference play. Do you think this will be an advantage for Purdue? Which of the Johnsons, Ronnie or Terone, is better quipped to exploit the matchup Saturday?

H&R: Terone drove us crazy at Northwestern because he had an awful night shooting on the drive and Ronnie did very little scoring. Both Johnsons and Bryson Scott have been good at times on the dribble drive, but all three are struggling right now. We need at least one to get on track.

B5Q: Purdue ranks fairly low in some defensive categories this season. Has the new emphasis on certain defensive rules, in particular on hand-checking, had any impact on how the Boilers like to play defense?

H&R: I have joked that defense has now been outlawed in college basketball, but part of it is effort. Purdue is not playing the tough, high effort, hard-nosed defense it is known for. When the effort is there team-wise it looks great, but Purdue’s inconsistency lies in its effort. We need another Chris Kramer: a guy willing to be a human floor burn and get everyone else going on the defensive end. Scott can eventually morph into that guy, but it is early.

We appreciate Travis taking time out of his busy week to lend a hand once gain. Give him some love on Twitter @HammerAndRails.

Projected Starting Lineups

Wisconsin Pos. Purdue
Frank Kaminsky, Jr. C A.J. Hammons, So.
Sam Dekker, So. F Basil Smotherman, Fr.
Josh Gasser, Jr. G Terone Johnson, Sr.
Ben Brust, Sr. G Rapheal Davis, So.
Traevon Jackson, Jr. G Ronnie Johnson, So.

KenPom win probability: 74% (75-68 W) 66 possessions

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For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.

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