On the list of games this weekend that are nearly impossible to predict, Sunday's contest between Wisconsin and Illinois in Champaign might be the toughest.
It would be real easy to take a glance at this game and assume Illinois will win because they are at home and appear to have a lot more at stake. The Illini badly need a win to earn an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament.
Meanwhile, the common notion on the Badgers is that they have nothing to play for. Whoever this play-by-play guy is calling the Purdue-Penn State game on the Big Ten Network just said "no matter what happens tomorrow in Champaign the two teams will play as the No. 4 and 5 seeds Friday in the Big Ten Tournament."
OK, chances are that will happen. But technically, if Michigan beats Michigan State tomorrow and the Badgers win, then Wisconsin will get the No. 3 seed. The Spartans will be playing at home, but it’s a rivalry game and crazier things have happened.
But let’s just assume that Wisconsin will be the No. 4 seed in Indianapolis. Does that mean Bo Ryan should be pulling Peyton Manning with a second-half lead? Absolutely not.
There are a number of things still at stake for Wisconsin in this game and here they are in order of importance:
1) Continuing to get Jon Leuer in sync with the rest of the team. The Badgers looked great against Indiana and Iowa, but the chemistry of this team needs to be tested on the road before the postseason starts. A win at Illinois would do wonders for Wisconsin’s confidence.
2) Seeding in the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin still has a chance to earn a No. 3 seed in the tournament and play its first and second round games in Milwaukee. In the very confusing seeding process there is one thing that is clear: the best way to help your seeding is to win basketball games.
3) Earning the No. 3 seed in the Big Ten Tournament. It’s a long shot that UW will get the No. 3 seed and quite frankly, it probably doesn’t matter. Getting a rematch against an Illinois team that will have lost five of six games (with a UW win tomorrow) would probably be better than playing a Minnesota team that has won three straight against the Badgers. Still, with Michigan State hosting Michigan after the Wisconsin-Illinois game, Big Ten Tourney seeding is still at stake.
Obviously, none of that adds up to what is at stake for Illinois. There is no question that the Illini have more to play for, which why this game is so tough to gage.
Do you take the team that isn’t playing well but has a lot to play for? Or the team that is playing some of its best basketball of the season, but has less to play for?
Keys to the Game
· Neutralize Tizzy and McCamey. The loss of Jon Leuer did not affect any game more than UW’s loss at home to Illinois. Wisconsin had no answer for the pick-and-pop tandem of Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale. The two combined for 46 points. Leuer’s size and athleticism should help against Tisdale.
· Rebound, rebound, rebound. Illinois outrebounded the Badgers 35-27 in the first meeting. Mike Davis and Bill Cole only combined for four points, but they each pulled down eight rebounds. Again, Leuer’s presence should help on the glass.
· Keep pounding the post. Even with Leuer back in the lineup, Illinois has the size to force Wisconsin into shooting a lot of threes. In the first meeting, Wisconsin shot 29 three-pointers, but in their win over Iowa Wednesday, the Badgers only shot 12. To get a win in Champaign Sunday, they will have to find a balance between the post and the arc.
Wisconsin 61, Illinois 52. Sure, the Illini have a lot to play for, but they’ve had a lot to play for in every game since they beat the Badgers and they’ve lost all but one. These are two teams headed in different directions right now.