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Ethan Happ - UW vs. Purdue

Wisconsin center Ethan Happ goes for a rebound in the second half of the Badgers' 84-80 overtime loss to the Purdue Boilermakers on Friday night at the Kohl Center in Madison. 

The last time Purdue came to the Kohl Center, the University of Wisconsin was experiencing its worst season in 20 years.

It was last February when the Boilermakers, ranked sixth in the country, showed up to face the Badgers, who had lost nine of their previous 12 games, all in the Big Ten, to fall to 11-16 overall and 4-10 in the conference.

That night, however, UW's downward spiral ended and a program rebirth began.

With former national player of the year Frank Kaminsky in attendance on the night his jersey was retired, the Badgers upset the Boilermakers in a low-scoring game, abruptly turning around a season that had been derailed by injuries and inexperience. Including the victory over Purdue, UW won four of its final six games, with its two losses coming to second-ranked Michigan State by a total of eight points.

The turnaround didn't happen quickly enough for UW to finish with a winning record, but from the Purdue game on, UW got back to looking like UW has looked since 2001-02. Indeed, it was better late than never for a program that had been to 19 consecutive NCAA tournaments.

Better yet, UW's familiar level of play carried over to this season.

When Purdue came to the Kohl Center for a nationally televised game Friday night, UW had an 11-4 record and was off to a 3-1 start in the Big Ten. Dating back to last season, the Badgers had won 15 of their previous 21 games and put themselves in solid position for an upper-division conference finish and an NCAA tournament berth.

Only this time UW didn't beat Purdue. The Badgers' 84-80 overtime loss to the Boilermakers was their second consecutive defeat at home and cast some doubt as to whether they can live up to their strong close last season and fast start this season.

No, UW's improvement this season isn't a mirage. The Badgers have shown they can compete on even terms with elite teams in and out of the conference. But maybe, just maybe, their improvement isn't as great as everyone thought before the Big Ten season resumed in the new year.

UW's strong finish last season revealed a distinct formula. There were dominant performances from center Ethan Happ, strong outside shooting led by Brad Davison and the supporting cast, a reduction in turnovers and, of course, UW's trademark defense − all of which are very familiar to UW fans.

Most of those traits carried over seamlessly to this season as UW plowed impressively through a tough non-conference schedule. But in a span of nine days, the Badgers dropped games to Minnesota and Purdue, two of the many Big Ten teams harboring legitimate NCAA tournament hopes.

It turns out that while the Badgers have reduced the issues that plagued them last season, they haven't eliminated them. Against Minnesota and Purdue, they had too many cold spells from deep, missed too many free throws, committed too many turnovers, had too many lapses on defense and had too little success without Happ on the floor, especially on the defensive boards.

UW outshot Purdue, 53.6 percent to 42.4 percent, but two statistics jumped off the page. The Badgers committed 17 turnovers, including two critical ones in the final 1 minute, 15 seconds of overtime, and allowed Purdue to grab 17 offensive rebounds. That gave Purdue and its sharpshooting guard, Carsen Edwards, way too many extra possessions. Those extra possessions were the difference in the game.

"That's another loss on our record that we definitely beat ourselves," Davison said. "It's something we talked about in the locker room is need to come out and find a sense of urgency and be our own energy from the start. Those are all things we pride ourselves on, with free throws and turnovers. So it's a learning opportunity. It has to be a learning curve. With conference play started, we've got to figure it out and get better from it."

It's not that UW is playing poorly, it's just that it is having too many lapses. The Badgers are sporadic shooting the ball, sporadic taking care of the ball at key times and sporadic on defense. Until they gain consistency, they will struggle to win games against other Big Ten contenders.

Their sporadic nature is one reason they've been falling behind early. At one point Friday night, they trailed the Boilermakers 20-10. Against Minnesota, they were down 15 points at halftime.

"When you fall down early and you're clawing back all day, that makes it tough," Davison said. "It's something we need to work on. It's something we need to get better at. Once we lock in and have the energy, we can compete with anybody and we're a tough team to match up against. It's something we need to work on and come out with more energy and fire."

The Badgers will need to make those improvements now because there are no easy marks in the Big Ten this season and every game counts.

Contact Tom Oates at toates@madison.com.