After an emotional win over Iowa Sunday night, No. 4 Wisconsin gets a single game to focus on this week, hoping to cement it's record for the best start in program history.
Illinois (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten) is no slouch, finally breaking into the AP poll at No. 23 this week after starting strong in conference against Indiana and Penn State. There are a lot of new faces on the team and some questions marks on the interior, however. Like UW, Illinois relies on its backcourt to pick up some slack on the boards.
Is this the game Nigel Hayes finally realizes he's a freshman? Or can he keep this train rolling against a team with very little size in the middle? Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky also will be looking for bounce back games for Wisconsin (15-0, 2-0), while the experienced Badger guards should match up well with the strength of the Illini in the backcourt.
This week, we borrowed Thomas Bruch from The Champaign Room to talk shop about how all the pieces are coming together for Illinois and taking on the personality of its passionate head coach.
B5Q: Guard Rayvonte Rice, formerly of Drake, has obviously been one of the biggest impact transfers in the country this season. He leads the Big Ten in scoring at 18.7 ppg, but I'm wondering if he has to have the ball in his hands to be effective. How well do you think he has meshed with incumbent point guard Tracy Abrams?
The Champaign Room: Make no mistake, Rice is at his best with the ball in his hands. If Illinois puts up a shot without him getting a touch, it almost feels like a squandered possession. When Rice is off the ball, he's a solid catch-and-shoot candidate from the 3-point line and a dangerous threat to soar for a rebound and bully his way to points off that board. But Groce wants the ball in his hands.
As far as his rapport with Abrams, they're almost mutually beneficial to each other. Rice attracts much of the defense's attention, which gives Abrams either more space to attack the rim (his preferred scoring method) or a minus-defender guarding him because the opposing team's stopper is dealing with Rice. Rice and Abrams have developed into a solid one-two punch for Illinois.
B5Q: From Rice to grad student Jon Ekey to a load of freshmen vying for minutes, head coach John Groce had a lot of new pieces to fit together this offseason. How close is Groce to setting a rotation that he really likes as league play gets going? The Illini bench really only went two deep last season and without seeing them in action much, it's hard to tell if anyone is emerging from the pack yet.
TCR: Groce doesn't really have the luxury of setting a rotation because of the current state of the roster. He has 10 scholarship players at his disposal, and all five bench players are freshman. Essentially, none of these guys have experience enough to make one more valuable than the other. They fill in piecemeal for short stints to give the starters a breather, and rarely is more than one of them on the court at the same time.
Kendrick Nunn has established himself as the big minutes-guy off the bench since the Missouri game because of his defense, athleticism and general fearlessness. Malcolm Hill had a nice effort in the Illini's last game against Penn State. Mostly, though, these are situational subs.
B5Q: I saw some resiliency from Illinois last year after a really tough midseason stretch of schedule dropped them to 2-7 in conference. That seems like it would be a big mental hurdle to clear considering how a couple of Bruce Weber's last few teams collapsed. Can you sense a personality forming under Groce that is different from the previous regime?
TCR: The answer to this question, more than almost anything, is what heartens Illini fans. Groce has reinvigorated the team out of sheer optimism and positive thinking. Players love playing for him, and he rewards them with enthusiasm and the green-light to play loose. Nnanna Egwu went 0-5 from 3-point range against Indiana last week, and Groce's first response to a question regarding that after the game was "I'm gonna let him keep shooting, he's earned that right." Groce likes feisty, tough players, and this team has taken on his personality far more than last season's. The culture change is underway.
B5Q: Each of the last two seasons, Illinois has started the year with (at least) a 10-game winning streak. This season, Illinois had four major conference teams on its non-conference slate and took a couple of respectable licks away from home, but bounced back to down Missouri and then Indiana in overtime. Was there any benefit to losing earlier in the season, maybe to release pressure or speed up the learning curve for this particular group?
TCR: I'd lean toward that second option in speeding up the learning curve. The Georgia Tech loss doesn't have many positives, but I'm sure it was instructive for the players to see how a slackened effort, poor shot selection and few errors can submarine a potential victory. That loss could still come back to haunt their tourney chances, but there's not much you can fault this team for since that loss.
B5Q: Nnanna Egwu is a nice, athletic post player, whose shotblocking ability has anchored an improved Illini defense. I think he's got a great-looking jump shot, but unfortunately, like Frank Kaminsky, Egwu is not a very good rebounder for his size. What's his progression been like as a player over his career?
TCR: When you try to look at Nnanna's career, you always account for the fact that he didn't start playing basketball until his freshman year of high school. Couple that with the total dysfunction he experienced his freshman year of college (Bruce's last year) and you have a player that still has a long ways to go.
What frustrates many Illinois fans is that it seemed like Nnanna was turning a corner near the end of last season, specifically the NCAA Tournament games. But he's shown relatively little offensive improvement outside of a few timely 3-pointers this season and virtually no back-to-the-basket game. His biggest strength is his defense. He's outstanding at hedging screens, clogging the lane and altering shots. For doing those things so well, I don't think he gets enough credit for how good he's become on defense.
B5Q: Since Egwu seems like the only guy with size on the Illini roster, how well do you see Illinois matching up with Wisconsin (which also doesn't have elite size) inside? It seems like Joseph Bertrand could be the X-factor on the glass.
TCR: Wisconsin's lack of elite size, as you say, resembles Illinois to a T. Jon Ekey's one of the Illini's best rebounders, but he'll be spending a lot of his time chasing Dekker around the perimeter if he draws that assignment, which will give Wisconsin a bit of an advantage on the glass. In that case, Joe Bertrand's rebounding activity will be a difference maker.
The wildcard is Nigel Hayes. In watching Wisconsin this season, I haven't seen what types of lineups Bo uses with Hayes. I would imagine in any situation that Nnanna would slide over to guard Hayes and Ekey would handle the next tallest Badger on the court. But Hayes is a load from what I've seen and could get some of Illinois's bigs in foul trouble.
B5Q: Care to make a prediction on the game?
TCR: Illinois could be boasting a top-15 caliber team and I'd still predict a loss at the Kohl Center. I'm very high on this year's Wisconsin team and really hope for a close game so Groce and Co. have some ammunition going into the rematch in Champaign later this season. I'll go Wisconsin 65-60.
Thanks to Thomas for stopping by for the chat. Find him on Twitter @ThomasBruch or the folks from the SB Nation Illinois site @Champaign_Room. Catch the game on BTN Wednesday at 8 p.m. CST. Or better yet, buy a ticket!
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||F||Nnanna Egwu, Jr.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Jon Ekey, Grad.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G||Joseph Bertrand, Sr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Rayvonte Rice, Jr.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Tracy Abrams, Jr.|
KenPom win probability: 87% (66-56 W) 60 possessions
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