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What to expect from Illinois vs. Wisconsin

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Plus a Q&A with The Champaign Room.

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Fresh off of its victory over now-No. 5 Michigan, the Wisconsin Badgers hope to continue the positive vibes while heading to Champaign to take on Illinois on Wednesday evening.

Illinois (5-13, 1-6 Big Ten) has suffered through a rough 2018-19 campaign so far. Head coach Brad Underwood’s squad picked up its first conference win of the season against Minnesota on Jan. 16 but recently suffered a 95-71 loss at Iowa on Sunday.

Losing six of their last seven, Illinois looks to upset another Big Ten team this week.

Ohio State transfer and current Wisconsin forward Micah Potter told B5Q that the best way to describe Illinois is “organized chaos.”

“They’re going to be up in your grill defensively, they’re going to try to jump passing lanes,” Potter said on Monday. “They’re going to try to double the post, they’re going to try to come back from behind and steal the ball. They’re all over the place. It’s organized chaos. They play super hard, so we got to be able to react to that offensively. We got to be able to be smart and be patient but also make the right and quick decision because they’re moving fast.”

Illinois leads the all-time series 110-88, but Wisconsin has won the last 13 match-ups.

Here’s a look at some key stats (both team and KenPom-related), along with potential starters for Illinois on Wednesday night.

Illinois team stats

  • Points per game: 74.2
  • Opponents’ points per game: 75.4
  • Field goal percentage: 43.3
  • Opponent field goal percentage: 47.0
  • Three-point percentage: 35.1
  • Opponent three-point percentage: 35.3
  • Free throw percentage: 69.3
  • Turnovers per game: 14.4
  • Opponents turnovers per game: 17.3
  • NCAA NET ranking: 108

Key KenPom.com stats

  • Team rank: 91
  • Adjusted offensive efficiency: 106.4 (120th in nation)
  • Adjusted defensive efficiency: 99.1 (86th in nation)
  • Defensive effective field goal percentage: 53.1 (270th in nation)
  • Offensive turnover percentage: 19.6 (226th in nation)
  • Defensive turnover percentage: 23.6 (14th in nation)
  • Offensive rebound percentage (defense): 30.9 (272nd in nation)
  • Offensive free throws attempted/field goals attempted: 25.6 (328th in nation)
  • Defensive free throws attempted/Field goals attempted: 46.4 (342nd in nation)

Potential Illinois starters

  • Sophomore guard Trent Frazier: 14.6 points per game, 2.5 rebounds per game, 2.9 assists per game
  • Freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu: 14.2 points per game, 4.6 rebounds per game, 2.9 assists per game
  • Sophomore guard Da’Monte Williams: 4.4 points per game; 3.2 rebounds per game; 1.3 assists per game
  • Redshirt junior forward Kipper Nichols: 7.6 points per game; 3.5 rebounds per game; 1.3 assists per game
  • Freshman forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili: 11.0 points per game; 5.1 rebounds per game; 0.9 assists per game

To help us break down Illinois’ season so far, The Champaign Room’s Brandon Birkhead answered our questions.

Obviously a rough season so far for Illinois at 5-13, 1-6 in conference play. What has been the overall feeling about this team and what has contributed to the struggles so far?

The overall feeling of the fanbase is we would just like this season to be over so we can just get on to next year. This season was shot long ago, but yet we have to keep watching these games in what just feels like a chore at this point. The only solace is watching the freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili and Ayo Dosunmu, however the better Ayo continues the play the more worrying it actually is because the possibility that he goes to the NBA Draft after one season increases after every good performance he has.

We are bad at both offense and defense. We are, to put it simply, a very bad basketball team and that’s why we are struggling. There is no magic fix for this season—though we should improve more by the end of the year. This is a young team that is still trying to learn how to play and win at this level.

The offense is much further along than the defense and they have had spurts and even some games where they can score with ease, but it’s far to inconsistent. The Brad Underwood offense has become very predictable and easy for opposing defenses to prepare for and the only consistent effective offense is our transition play which has been great at times when Ayo has the ball in the open court.

The defense quite frankly is a goddamn disaster. Illinois ranks 319th in offensive field goal percentage. The intense pressure defense of Brad Underwood just isn’t working. There will be one or two possessions where the defense clicks and the pressure totally shuts down a the opposition, but it’s much more likely that the defense will break down leading to easy looks and countless easy baskets on back door looks due to the over aggressiveness of the defense on ball swings. Illini fans are questioning if this style of defense will ever work in the Big Ten even as Underwood brings in better talent to fit it.

Just look at these defensive stats in conference (via Sports-Reference):

Please just end this season. Let’s get Kofi Cockburn in here and try again in 2019-20.

We always ask this—who will defend Ethan Happ, and how effective could he/they be?

The task will probably be given to freshman center Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Giorgi has been a revelation for Illinois. He was recruited by almost no one, and we expected him to be a project player, but he has proven more than capable of playing at this level right away as a freshman. But, he still is a freshman center, which means he fouls a lot on defense. He has fouled out six times this season and has had five games with four fouls. Against a guy like Happ, that could be an issue. Giorgi is a guy who will be physical and do all he can to help try to slow him down, but he needs to do everything he can to not foul and to stay on the court.

I would like to see the other freshman center, Samba Kane, get some minutes defending Happ. He’s a super long seven-footer who could develop into an excellent defensive player and it may be a good “throw him into the fire” opportunity for a few minutes.

Three Illinois players average double figures in scoring so far—sophomore Trent Frazier and freshmen Ayo Dosunmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili. How have they progressed this season, and what stands out most about their respective games?

I’ve already mentioned how much of a surprise Giorgi has been. His play in the post is great and he already has a versatile post game. His shot selection has been getting better, but he has issues with turning the ball over too much.

Ayo struggled to start the season as he adjusted to college basketball and he had an truly awful game against Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights game, but since then, the switched turned on and Ayo has been fantastic. In the last six games, he is averaging 20 points a game. He can hit threes. He can beat his man off the dribble. His hesitation move is great. He can finish very well at the rim, and he is a very good passer. He is an absolutely fantastic defender. He has turned into the guard that all Illinois fans hoped we were getting when he signed on.

Trent Frazier has continued to be a good scorer in his second year and has seen a huge jump in his three-point field goal percentage, but with Ayo now taking over a heavy amount of the ball handling load, there are often times where Trent can’t make an impact. He is a scorer who is much better with the ball in his hands where he is allowed to create his own shot, and so is Ayo. They aren’t the type of players to score with off-ball cuts or running around a screen for catch-and-shoot opportunities. This has led to a scenario where Illinois has yet to have both players play well at the same time. It becomes clear early on if it will be an Ayo game or a Trent game, but in the last couple of games it has been Trent halves or Ayo halves, so we are moving closer. And when they finally can find the right balance playing together, the Illini offense could take off.

Where do you think Illinois could give Wisconsin the most trouble on Wednesday night, and vice versa, where could the Badgers have the advantage?

Illinois’ three-point shooting has gone down as of late after a good start, but I think hitting threes is where Illinois can get to Wisconsin. Frazier, Dosunmu, and Aaron Jordan are all good shooters that play starter minutes and freshman Tevian Jones has hit a few in the last couple of games with Alan Griffin and Kipper Nichols also being capable shooters. We just had a game against Iowa where they shot 15-of-21 from three so why can’t Illinois do the same in this game? ;) Beyond three-point shooting, Wisconsin should look to keep the ball out of Dosunmu’s hands in transition, but with how the Badgers play on both ends of the court that shouldn’t be a huge worry.

The Badgers should have the big advantage when they are on the offensive end. Illinois fouls a lot and doesn’t have a great answer to stop Happ. Illinois might look to double the post in this game, but that will only lead to open threes and potentially even more fouls than Illinois usually has. Illinois will have a tough time keeping the Badgers under 75 points.

What’s your prediction for the conference match-up?

I have a feeling that Illinois is due for the “Frazier and Dosunmu playing well at the same time” game. At least I hope, because that may be the only way Illinois can make this a game. We haven’t beaten you guys since 2011 and I don’t think that changes, but I do think Illinois will keep it interesting late into the game. Wisconsin to win 78-71.