It might be too early in the season for Wisconsin (11-4, 2-0 Big Ten) to face a must-win game, but not by much. Extending its current five-game winning streak to six games by beating No. 12 Illinois (14-3, 1-2) on Saturday afternoon would provide a much-needed springboard into the meat of the conference schedule.
There has been no shortage of classic games between UW and Illinois during the Bo Ryan Era. The Illini are the only team to beat Ryan three times at the Kohl Center, though UW has won four of the last seven meetings. In this case, not only is positioning in the Big Ten at stake, but also a resume-building win in the fight for one of 37 at-large bids in the NCAA tournament.
Assisting us in this week's analysis is Mark Primiano (aka U-God) from SB Nation's newish Fighting Illini entry, The Champaign Room.
B5Q: I was hoping Illinois would be rolling off back-to-back wins over Ohio State and Minnesota and entering Saturday's game a little overconfident. Now it appears this game is very important to both teams. Who do you think comes out jacked up and more hungry for a win: Illinois or Wisconsin?
The Champaign Room: As much of a homer as it will make me sound like, I think Illinois comes out hungrier. I'm not belittling the prep work Bo Ryan does or saying the Badgers won't come out swinging (in an incredibly slow and efficient manner, as is becoming of the gameplan), but this is an Illini team that has already shown they can bounce back from getting punched in the nose. They played like men possessed against Ohio State after the embarrassing Purdue loss last week. I expect similar fire this weekend.
B5Q: In light of the three recent losses, this season is starting to look eerily similar to last season for the Illini. In 2011, three losses (UNLV, Missouri, Purdue) away from Champaign in a five-game stretch followed a 10-0 start. Now this year, a 12-0 start gave way to three losses -- two away from Assembly Hall (Missouri, Purdue) and one at home (Minnesota) -- over the next five games. I know you're not there yet (at least I hope not), but what will it take for Illinois fans to throw their hands up and say, "Here we go again!"
TCR: Definitely nowhere close to the outrage point, but there is some concern. The Purdue loss was awful and ugly, but the other two losses were to very good teams who could both wind up being three seeds or higher in the tournament this year. It's hard to get too upset about those losses. That being sad, I think this next three game stretch is pretty vital in restoring good faith. If we go 3-0, everything is wedding cake. 2-1? Still solid, depending on which team hands us that loss. 1-2 or 0-3 and you can expect to see people heading for the lifeboats.
B5Q: Ken Pomeroy actually predicted an Illinois loss to Minnesota, but still, allowing 50 points in the second half must have been annoying to watch. Tell us about the defensive philosophies and principles of first-year head coach John Groce ... and what the heck went wrong against the Gophers.
TCR: A former roommate of mine drove down to my suburb to watch the Gophers game with me, so there are some key details I missed as we scrambled from bar to bar in downtown Plainfield trying to figure out how a town 30 miles outside of Chicago could have so many establishments without the BTN. That being said, one thing that stuck out like the sorest of all thumbs was a complete lack of transition defense in the second half. It felt like every time we missed a shot, there was somehow already a Gopher waiting 3/4 of the way down the court for the easy lay-up or dunk. It was inexcusable. But a nice thing about John Groce has been recognition of team flaws and actually working on them in practice, so I don't expect that particular problem to persist.
B5Q: Illinois is relying on 3-pointers more so under Groce than in the recent past, much of it due to personnel. More than four out of every 10 field goal attempts is from behind the arc. Badger fans know how frustrating this can be. Have the Illini's losses simply correlated with bad shooting nights, or is the weakness inside a bigger concern? I feel a motivated Wisconsin squad could really do damage against Illinois' front line.
TCR: It's been a bit of both. Going 3-24 in the Minnesota game certainly didn't help, but the game was closer on the boards than most of us thought it would be going into it. They shot .385 from behind the arc against Purdue, but got absolutely crushed when it came to rebounds. And I don't know too many teams that can win when the other team has almost twice as many rebounds as you, which is what happened against Mizzou. The size of the frontcourt is definitely a concern, but Nnanna Egwu has already made considerable improvements so far this year and is still young enough to keep improving. The gentlemen in the backcourt who aren't named Tracy Abrams need to start attacking the rim and stop just chucking the ball up in desperation.
B5Q: Brandon Paul is a bonafide Big Ten star now, but I remember him and fellow senior D.J. Richardson as the jewels of a heralded 2009 recruiting class (which also included Tyler Griffey and RS junior Joe Bertrand) that was supposed to save Bruce Weber's job. Ultimately they failed in that. How important is this season for Paul's (and Richardson's) legacy?
TCR: It's looking like their legacies are pretty much established, barring some change in the second half. Richardson's devolution as a player has been disheartening. We've got a player who somehow managed to get worse every year after showing worlds of potential as an underclassman. I don't know who is entirely to blame for that, but have no problem picking Bruce Weber. I've been paying special attention to KSU this year to see how Frank Martin's players handle Weber's helicoptering (I attend KSU, so this is an easy thing to do).
Brandon Paul, while improved, is still a bit of a disappointment. He'll likely finish his career in the top 10 in points scored in school history but we all expected him to figure it out and reach that next level. He never found the consistency that would allow something like that to happen, so instead we're left with a frustratingly talented player who gets colder than Edmonton more often than we'd prefer.
B5Q: On the telecast the other night, announcers stressed how Tracey Abrams' foul trouble really took the Illini out of their offensive rhythm. Is he the most unheralded cog in the offense? How important is he?
TCR: Tracy has been an increasingly important part of the Illini offense this year, which is very exciting and comforting to see. He is blossoming under Groce and is a strange 1.5 kind of guard. He can play the point, but his instincts call for him to slash and drive more than pass, which works out well enough. The game against Auburn on Dec. 29 at the United Center was his coming out party as he set career highs in points (27) and rebounds (8). Abrams is seemingly the only guard who lacks fear of attacking instead of settling for jumpers. Will Leitch currently thinks he's the most important player on the team, and I'm hard pressed to disagree. He's going to have to be the man next year when Richardson and Paul graduate and his play so far this season has made that a far less terrifying prospect than it was back in October.
B5Q: Looking more big picture now, how are the younger players on the roster coming along? Are they responding well to the coaching change? Many of these guys (Bertrand, Mike Shaw, Mycheal Henry, Nnanna Egwu) were also recruited by Wisconsin back in the day. Groce's (and Weber's) usage of them has varied widely.
TCR: Unlike the football players completely refusing to buy into Tim Beckman's system, the basketball team wholeheartedly agreed to everything Groce was selling. Egwu is rapidly growing into the talented big man with a bit of a mean streak that the team has desperately needed. Abrams has improved drastically as well. Shaw and Henry both seem much happier with their roles and just happier in general now that Bruce is gone. I know you didn't mention Griffey for this point, but Tyler started the season stronger than ever and we like to believe that not having a coach screaming "NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!" every time he tries to shoot might have something to do with that. Joe Bert off the bench is maybe my favorite non-Mike LaTulip thing about this year's squad as he is just an absolute freak of an athlete. I'm excited for him to be a full-time starter next season.
B5Q: What do you see as the biggest mismatch in this game and finally, do you have a prediction?
TCR: As is going to be the case in almost every Big Ten game the Illini play this season, the main mismatch is going to be rebounds and size advantages. The Badgers have three players that are 6'10" or taller (I know Anderson doesn't really play much). Illinois has one player that size, and our 6'9" guy (Griffey) isn't much of a banger. Wisconsin should have no problem outrebounding the Illini, but I think the Illini pull of the win up north in a close game.
If the Kohl Center is close to full by 1:15 pm, I predict a Wisconsin victory myself. The team is due for some warmer shooting. On the other hand, if bounces start going the other way and people have already started their Packer parties ... ugh.
For all your Illini and White Sox needs, find more of Mark over at The Champaign Room, South Side Sox, or on Twitter @SSS_UGod.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Jared Berggren, Sr.||F||Nnanna Egwu, So.|
|Mike Bruesewitz, Sr.||F||Tyler Griffey, Sr.|
|Ryan Evans, Sr.||F / G||Brandon Paul, Sr.|
|Ben Brust, Jr.||G||D.J. Richardson, Sr.|
|Traevon Jackson, So.||G||Tracy Abrams, So.|
KenPom win probability: 76% (68-61 W) 64 possessions
Join the Badger conversation on Facebook! Go to our Facebook page and "like" us!
For more Wisconsin basketball coverage, follow Phil on Twitter @hoopsmarinara.