Timing is everything. Although the glory days of the Wisconsin-Illinois hoops rivalry may have faded, Sunday's matchup is shaping up to be a good one.
On one hand, leading scorer Rayvonte Rice conveniently returned to action for Illinois (17-8, 7-5 Big Ten) Thursday night and shook of the rust of a five-week injury/suspension in time to help lead the Illini to an overtime win over Michigan. With its fourth-straight win, Illinois continued to move up into contention for a top seed in the looming conference tournament. In Rice's absence, had coach John Groce's sophomore class took the bull by the horns, leading many to believe Illinois can make a run at an NCAA bid as well.
For the No. 5 Badgers (22-2, 10-1), four full days of rest gave surging forward Sam Dekker time to rest up his gimpy shin and the team time to refocus on protecting a three-game conference lead. Wisconsin will continue to do it with a short bench, until Traevon Jackson can progress from ditching his scooter to running full throttle again.
B5Q: Illinois hadn't been over .500 in Big Ten play since 2011. Is this real life yet?
The Champaign Room (Matt): Haha, it is definitely starting to feel like real life, though there's a long way to go. Illinois fans have been waiting far too long to get back into the upper echelon of the Big Ten, but with a really strong end to the year there's a chance Illinois could be a top three seed in the Big Ten Tournament. John Groce finally seems to have the entire team headed in the right direction and fans are excited about the future of the team. That said, Illini fans are pretty jumpy and they'll get right off the bandwagon if Illinois has a bad loss or two down the line.
B5Q: Now that Rice is back, give us your take on the Rice and Aaron Cosby suspensions. Any idea why they were held out? Do you think Cosby will return? Any apprehension about reintegrating Rice and Cosby back into the team, considering how well the Illini played without them?
Matt: We're not exactly sure why they've been suspended, but it was supposedly for a violation of team rules which typically means an alcohol or drug-related offense. I don't mean to accuse either of them of that, but that's the general belief of the fan base. Nobody is too concerned about it, especially with Rice coming back to play last night against Michigan. Regardless of how well the team is playing right now, they will be better with Rice and Cosby because of the added depth. Some of the starters have been playing heavy minutes recently and there have been a couple of bad lineups that Groce has been forced into using. Cosby may be out for a while longer, but the return of Rice has been much anticipated and he is a big boost to the team's playmaking and defense.
B5Q: Never was a huge fan of Rice (he's the type of guy you'd see leading Penn State to 14 conference losses), but Malcolm Hill is a candidate I can get excited about. The sophomore wing has good size, a nice stroke and can score in multiple ways. Since Wisconsin recruited him, I'm interested. Go ahead and gush a little about Hill's emergence.
Matt: Well first of all, I urge you to try to look past Rice's occasional poor shot selection and check out his improvement this year. His shooting percentages have skyrocketed since last year, including a near-20 percent jump in his three-point shooting. He's much more efficient now than in the past (though some of that is due to the majority of his stats being collected against non-conference opponents). I'd also urge you to check out his defensive contributions during the game, because he's one of the best in the conference on that end.
As for Hill, it's hard to say enough good things about the guy. He was tagged by many of the local media as the breakout player of the year and hasn't disappointed in the slightest. His improvement from last year is almost superhuman. He has great shot selection and a smooth jumper from everywhere on the court, he's capable of backing down smaller forwards and getting points in the post, and he's even able to make plays off the dribble from time to time. When Rice is off the court, and sometimes even when he's on, Hill is the clear offensive leader of the team, and he does it without slacking on defense.
B5Q: Speaking of recruiting, if Nnanna Egwu had chosen Wisconsin over Illinois, Detective Frank Kaminsky would be slumming it in some other city, maybe upholding justice with his super powers, maybe not. Is a situation like that a bummer for Illini fans because they missed out on a great, in-state player or a non-issue because Bruce Weber never would have offered him anyway?
Matt: Anytime an in-state prospect goes elsewhere and finds success (especially to the level of Kaminsky), it's a huge bummer for the state school. That said, Nnanna Egwu is a darn good consolation prize if you ask me, and he's been keeping the Illini defense at an elite level for the last several years by himself. Obviously it'd be nice to have a Player of the Year-caliber guy on the team, but I don't think Illini fans are too caught up in the loss of Kaminsky. More crushing have been the losses in high profile recruiting battles for the Illini in recent years under Groce. Players like Cliff Alexander and Jalen Brunson could have been program-changing additions to the team, but Groce is still searching for a five-star prospect to mold.
B5Q: In terms of matchups, what do you predict will be John Groce's strategy defending Kaminsky? Will Illinois double him or play things straight up?
Matt: It's hard to know without asking the man himself, but Illinois did a decent job against Kaminsky last time (two points and only one field goal attempt). I'd expect them to see if Nnanna Egwu can guard the man one-on-one to a decent level at the beginning of the game. If Kaminsky is burning Egwu with outside shooting and post moves, then they'll switch it up, but I don't expect them to deploy a double team early on unless there's a very clear need for it. I have confidence in Egwu to do as good a job as anybody in the country can do against a player like Kaminsky, but even that might not be enough to limit him.
B5Q: To an outsider, this season has featured some highs (100-pt games, wins over Maryland, Baylor and at Michigan St.) and very few true low points for the Illini. Any common thread in those big wins? And has the season met or exceeded your expectations so far?
Matt: I'd say the common thread in the big wins has been a suffocating defense. Illinois had a fiery offense for most of the non-conference schedule, but that was due to the lack of competition. There just isn't enough playmaking and shooting on this team to blow somebody out of the gym with excellent offense. Illinois beat Maryland and Michigan State by holding them to 36 and 38 percent shooting from the field, respectively. To beat Wisconsin, they'll have to play excellent defense and combine it with some timely three-point shooting.
B5Q: I hate this 14-team schedule crap and think it's a shame these two teams will only meet once this year. The rivalry sure has lost some luster since the Devin Harris-Dee Brown battles, hasn't it? But is it dead? What's an Illinois fan's perspective on the importance of this series?
Matt: While I don't think there's much of a rivalry anymore, Illini fans are going to get up for these games as long as Wisconsin is at the top of the Big Ten. Giant-slaying is always fun, and Illinois has been thirsting to get back to the top level of the B1G under John Groce but has yet to break through the middle group of teams. There aren't the big names and high rankings that there used to be on both sides, but maybe that'll change as Groce continues to improve Illinois' recruiting and Bo Ryan continues to lead his elite race of shooty dudes who suffocate opponents into submission.
A big thanks to Matt for stepping in with the Orange and Blue perspective and challenging me to give Rice another chance. You can follow Matt on Twitter @msilich2 or SB Nation's whole Illini crew @ChampaignRoom. Wisconsin and Illinois are scheduled for a noon tip on Sunday from the Kohl Center.
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