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Leuering them in

Badgers continue to improve as they deal Illini major blow

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Message sent.

The NCAA selection committee might have been watching Wisconsin's 72-57 win over Illinois Sunday wondering whether or not it should put the Illini in the tournament, but now the committee members have another dilemma: Should they bump the Badgers up a seed or two?

Wisconsin soundly beat a very desperate Illinois team that has now lost five of six games since winning in Madison Feb. 9 and with Jon Leuer playing some of the best basketball in the country, the Badgers are a very tough team to beat these days.

It's never been more evident than Sunday that Wisconsin is a completely different team with Leuer in the lineup. Just ask Illinois, which beat a Leuer-less Badgers team at the Kohl Center last month, but looked lost on their own floor this afternoon.

Just five games removed from returning to the lineup after a wrist injury, Leuer scored 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting despite battling foul trouble and his confidence appears to be at an all-time high. He routinely caught passes in the post Sunday and quickly beat any and every Illinois defender that tried to slow him down. Whether it was a jumper, hook shot, layup or dunk, the Illini had no answer for UW's big man.

"We always want to be physical and dominate inside," Leuer said after the game. "I definitely think we played better on the interior and hopefully we can continue to do that."

But Wisconsin's dominance came in the midst of more obstacles than just Leuer's foul trouble. Trevon Hughes also was plagued with fouls for most of the game, but as he has done so many times this season, Jordan Taylor took over the offense seemlessly and scored 20 points on 8-of-17 shooting.

"Jordan Taylor. What are you going to say? His heart is twice as big as he is," Ryan said. "He knew he had to reach down for a little extra because with Pop in foul trouble he had to not only guard McCamey but handle the ball."

On top of the foul trouble to Leuer and Hughes, Keaton Nankivil also finished the game with four fouls and Jason Bohannon was stuck in a poor shooting day as he finished with only three points on 1-of-6 shooting.

So what? The Badgers never skipped a beat.

UW was outrebounded 35-27 by Illinois in Madison. Sunday, UW won the rebounding battle 40-30, including 17 offensive rebounds. Trevon Hughes and Jordan Taylor combined for 10 offensive boards, which was two more than the entire Illinois team.

"You know, you're struggling in some other areas. That's when you know you have a great bunch of guys," Ryan said about Hughes and his seven offensive rebounds. "He was struggling there a little bit, yet he just had a nose for the ball and tracked them down."

Wisconsin had 16 second chance points and 11 points off eight Illini turnovers. The Badgers finished with 24 points in the paint, which is a long cry from the 29 threes UW jacked up against Illinois last month. Sunday, they only shot 18 threes and made seven of them.

Defensively, Leuer's difference was just as great. The pick-and-pop tandem of Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale combined for 46 points in Madison. Today, McCamey only scored 11 points (seven of which were free throws), while Tisdale had 16 (eight of which were free throws). With Leuer in there defensively, UW's entire defense is much quicker to react and matches up much better against a taller team like Illinois.

Considered at least a No. 4 or 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament for much of the season, the selection committee might want to reconsider with Wisconsin winning with the recipe it has used in its last four games. But Leuer still doesn't think the Badgers have reach their potential.

"I don't think we are there yet," Leuer said. "But with the [postseason] coming up, we are getting there. It's promising."

Sunday's win wasn't always easy. Wisconsin only led by three points with five seconds left in the first half, but that's when a coaching error by Bruce Weber gave the Badgers a big boost.

After a timeout called by Bo Ryan, it appeared the Illini would try to foul after UW inbounded the ball because they had two fouls to give. Instead, Keaton Nankivil got the ball at the top of the key and Tisdale let him shoot an open three. Nankivil drained it and the Badgers took a six point lead into the locker room.

"It's our fault," Weber said referring to the coaching staff. "Probably shouldn't have had Tisdale in there. At least close out."

Just 49 seconds into the second frame, UW upped that lead to 10 on a Hughes jumper and eight minutes later he put his team up 16 on a three-pointer.

Still, Illinois weathered a field-goal drought of 9:30 by making 12 free throws in that stretch and later cut the deficit to 55-50 with seven minutes remaining. That's when Keaton Nankivil came up with the biggest field goal of the game.

With Hughes at the line shooting a 1-and-1, the senior point guard missed the front end but Nankivil grabbed the rebound and converted on the putback to put the Badgers up seven. That was as close as Illinois would get.

Just seconds later, Bohannon knocked the ball away from McCamey and right into the hands of Taylor who started sprinting down the floor. In frustration, McCamey grabbed him from behind and was called for an intentional foul.

"It was big," Bohannon said about that play. "They got the bonus on us and they were hitting free throws with the clock stopped. Anytime you're getting points with the clock stopped it's going to change the momentum a little bit and we needed to find someway to turn it back in our favor and hopefully that was it."

For Illinois, the loss puts their NCAA Tournament hopes in major jeopardy, but the Illini can take solace in that they get a second chance against the Badgers. The two teams will meet again Friday in the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals.

"That 40 minutes is over. We'll take our teaching clips and do our thing," Ryan said. "I'm sure Bruce will do the same. We just know we'll be playing a good team."