3 keys to beating Illinois

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Two balanced offenses collide in Madison tonight, as Wisconsin welcomes the Fighting Illini. The Badgers will need to control the glass and get a bounce back performance from its floor leader to extend its undefeated streak.

The last time the Wisconsin men’s basketball won its first 15 games in a season, Black Tuesday—the stock market crash that preceded the Great Depression—was still more than a decade and a half in the future.

Wisconsin’s lone national title, the one that came 72 years ago, was still 28 years away. That’s 100 years.

So there’s a little program perspective on where this group is at compared to how others have started. Big picture thinking can be difficult to come by, particularly if you’re a college basketball player about to hit the meat of your league schedule in the strongest conference in the country.

In that sense, it seems fair that we hear the "we’re just focusing on the next game" line as often as we do.

The next game is against a really good opponent. Just like the last one was. Just like most of them will be from here on out.

League play can be awesome like that.

Next up is Illinois, newly minted in the Associated Press Top 25 rankings. The Illini (13-2 overall, 2-0 Big Ten) checked in at No. 23 when this week’s poll was released Monday. Their two losses came at Georgia Tech Dec. 3 and on a neutral court against No. 17 Oregon Dec. 14.

Looking at their results—this is a surface level observation only—it looks like they’ve played to the level of their opponents at times, like in a pair of two-point wins against UNLV and IPFW. That’s Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne.

But their starting five, which is discussed further below, is balanced. All five guys average 7.9 points per game or better. One of their two freshman guards coming off the bench, Kendrick Nunn, was a heralded prep player who won four state titles at Simeon High School in Chicago. The other, Malcolm Hill, is second on the team in assists despite playing 15.7 minutes per game.

Here are three other keys to keep an eye on Wednesday night:

Second-chance points

The Badgers got dominated on the glass for most of the game against Iowa. The Hawkeyes won the rebounding battle 42-35 overall and had a 23-7 edge in second-chance points. In the first half, it was 18-1 and Iowa grabbed offensive boards on 64.7 percent of its misses. One part of this is just technique. Iowa’s length allowed them to win some battles around the rim.

"We were standing straight up and down," assistant coach Greg Gard said after practice Monday night. "We gave up too much dribble penetration, we had to rotate to help and we didn’t do a good job rotating on the backside."

UW also was in foul trouble and only got 14 minutes from freshman forward Nigel Hayes as a result. However, redshirt junior forward Duje Dukan finished with a career-high seven rebounds in 20 minutes. If he continues to be effective on the boards, that would be huge for the Badgers. Much like the Badgers, Illinois’ guards are good rebounders, each averaging over four per game. Following Sunday’s performance, Wisconsin needs to tighten up on the glass.

Contain Rayvonte Rice

Rice leads Illinois in scoring at 18.7 points per game so far this year. In an overtime win against Indiana Dec. 31, he had 29 and took seemingly every big shot. If Rice isn’t a familiar name, don’t feel bad. He sat out last year after transferring from Drake, where he started 62 games in two years.

In that vein, Illinois’ starting five is unique. They start three guys Wisconsin will be very familiar with in senior Joseph Bertrand and juniors Tracey Abrams and Nnanna Egwu, but also two transfers in Rice and Jon Ekey. Ekey graduated from Illinois State and therefore was eligible to play immediately.

Badgers junior point guard Traevon Jackson said he didn’t think scouting or playing the Illini would be much different even with two new, veteran faces contributing, but did say they seemed to be fitting in well and that the Illini seemed to have better chemistry than in years past.

Continue the offensive balance

Speaking of Jackson, he was very direct in talking about his performance after turning the ball over seven times against Iowa. He took responsibility and didn’t make excuses. Here’s the thing: He doesn’t have to do everything on offense. He seems to know that and most of the time he plays like he knows it, but every once in a while he dribbles too much and the offense stagnates.

Wisconsin can light it up from deep when they get hot. Both Kaminsky—who is hitting 46.3 percent of his threes, by the way—and Hayes have shown they can play with their backs to the basket. Dekker has as well, and the sophomore moves well without the ball. As a team, they get enough dribble penetration and get open because of good cutting and ball movement that they’re getting plenty of baskets at the rim. They don’t have to rely on any one method of scoring, which is why it was particularly head scratching when Jackson kept trying to force his way to the basket. For the most part, the Westerville, Ohio native has become a very good facilitator. Expect to see a return to that Wednesday night.

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