As it turned out, the Illinois Fighting Illini were exactly who we thought they were heading into their first meeting with Wisconsin three weeks ago. Therefore, the challenge facing the Badgers today in Champaign is to not let the Illini off the hook.
Wisconsin (14-7, 5-3 Big Ten) is seeking another quality road win to add to its impressive upset of Indiana earlier this year. Road wins are at a premium in the Big Ten and UW did not successfully grab any resume-building victories in a hostile environment prior to entering league play. The Badgers are 2-4 on the road this season, 3-5 overall away from the Kohl Center.
Earlier road losses at Florida and Marquette were most disappointing because of the manner in which Wisconsin lost them. They were two examples that had fans doubting this Wisconsin team prior to stellar back-to-back efforts against Illinois and Indiana.
But those doubts have resurfaced midway through the Big Ten schedule due mostly to UW's offensive struggles.
Illinois (15-7, 2-6) has already fallen way behind in the conference race, and are in the midst of the annual Illini swoon.
Just like last season, Illinois hiccuped right before meeting Wisconsin for the first time. Last year it was a surprise loss at Penn State before losing to Wisconsin at home that foreshadowed the Illini dropping 12 of their last 14 contests. This year it was Minnesota who blasted the Illini at home. From there, the Badgers put together what at the time was their best 40-minute effort of the season, smashing Illinois in Madison, 74-51.
Looking back to the previous meeting, four Badgers scored in double figures while Illini star Brandon Paul was held to 1-for-11 shooting from the field. Wisconsin jumped out to a 20-point halftime lead on January 12, thanks to the play of the UW big men. The Wisconsin front line outscored Illinois' front line 45-4 and rendered starting center Nnanna Egwu ineffective due to foul trouble. The Badgers also outrebounded the Illini, 41-23.
The Illini would probably like to forget that game altogether, and concentrate on getting back to .500 in conference. That will be a very tall order in and of itself. Since falling to Wisconsin, Illinois lost big at home to Northwestern, beat Nebraska in Lincoln, then lost two game to the Michigan schools.
Both teams are coming off decent road losses -- Wisconsin to Ohio State, Illinois by five points to Michigan State.
John Groce has made one change to the starting lineup since the Illini's embarrassment in Madison. He replaced forward Tyler Griffey with senior transfer Sam McLaurin, one of the better offensive rebounders in the Big Ten. The 6'8" McLaurin has averaged around 7 ppg in four games since being shutout in 19 minutes against the Badgers.
Meanwhile, Wisconsin should have a more effective Frank Kaminsky back after an eye injury. The sophomore center returned for four minutes against Ohio State and this week revealed that he was diagnosed with hyphema after being poked in the eye against Indiana.
"The first five-to seven days, I had to be on bed rest, basically," he said. "Because if I had too much activity, it could have started bleeding again. They said if it bleeds again, then I’m really going to be in some trouble."
Hyphemia -- basically hemorrhaging in the front of the eye -- could have sidelined him for the rest of the season had he hurried back too quickly. Kaminsky expects to wear protective goggles the rest of the season. It would be difficult to imagine playing worry-free after recovering from such an injury, knowing that another freak accident could possibly do more permanent damage to your vision. Best of luck to Frank.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||F||Nnanna Egwu, So.|
|Mike Bruesewitz, Sr.||F||Sam MCLaurin, Sr.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F / G||Brandon Paul, Sr.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||D.J. Richardson, Sr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||Tracy Abrams, So.|
KenPom win probability: 62% (64-61 W) 62 possessions
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