Final exams were last month but Wisconsin faces another important test Saturday afternoon when Illinois comes to the Kohl Center. Bo Ryan has three days to teach his crew the necessary lessons from the Michigan State meltdown and the Badgers will have 40 minutes to prove they have the answers.
Priority one is maintaining focus from start to finish. Wisconsin (12-4, 2-2 Big Ten) lost its way during crunch time against the Spartans and wound up committing plenty of turnovers and mental mistakes. The Badgers need to return to the form that allowed only three turnovers in the previous clash with Illinois. Wisconsin must protect home court this time if it hopes to remain alive in the conference race.
But the No. 16 Fighting Illini (13-4, 3-1) are not going to be any more forgiving than the Spartans. Illinois just lost to a rejuvenated Penn State squad on Tuesday, but have the swagger of a team that has won three of their last four against the Badgers. The trip to Madison kicks off a brutal three-game stretch for Bruce Weber & Co. that will see them host Michigan State and Ohio State next week.
The Illinois front court poses a challenge for the Badger big men. The combination of Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis and Bill Cole made 13-of-18 shots in this season's first meeting. Not only that, but Illinois pounded Wisconsin on the glass. At some point, Wisconsin just has to sack up and answer the bell physically. The offensive aptitude of Jon Leuer, Keaton Nankivil and Jared Berggren is well documented, but there are two sides to a winning equation. Giving up 1.21 points-per-possession again (as UW did to Illinois previously) is not going to cut it.
There's one catch however. If the Badgers simply repeated most aspects from the game in Champaign and hit a couple of those wide open jumpers, they'll be in good shape. As Ryan likes to say, he wouldn't have traded in many of those clean looks. They just didn't go in.
But typically, these are two teams that can stroke it from the outside.
Strange as it seems, the Illini are still shooting such a great percentage from long distance that they may be leaving points on the table but not taking a few more 3-pointers. Without seeing all Illinois' games, what might be happening is that the team is utilizing the three-point threat so effectively by continuing to cash in on the easy buckets in the paint.
Should Wisconsin go against the grain and pack it in defensively? Well, yes, that's pretty much what the Badgers have always done under Ryan and they will continue to do it.
With the home crowd behind them, the Badgers just need a few more stops on defensive and someone to lend Jordan Taylor a hand in the back court. We've already noted the question mark at shooting guard. A spark from that spot would go along way. Beyond the offensive struggles though, expecting Taylor to handle the ball, stop Demetri McCamey and lead the scoring charge for 40 minutes is too much to ask. He needs help. And when he gets it, Wisconsin will have itself another 'W'.