The Fighting Illini immediately shifted gears from a momentous victory against Ohio State to an 84-67 drubbing against the #8 Minnesota Golden Gophers in Champaign on Wednesday. Just when everything was starting to pick up for the Illini, they’ve once again began to skid, losing their third game in five tries, including a shaky 1-2 Big Ten start. Eight weeks into the season it’s still difficult where to peg the Illini in the national picture. Illinois has seen their high of highs after picking up two top ten wins against Gonzaga and Ohio State, but have fell back to earth with losses against Purdue and disappointing performances against tough opponents in Missouri and Minnesota. Much like last season, Illinois has struggled with consistency early on. The Illini look to change that against Wisconsin on Saturday.
It’s always tough coming off of a double digit loss at home, especially in a game that was closer than the final score would indicate. Coach John Groce summed up the loss in two words, “transition defense.”
“We gave up 21 points of the 84 that they scored in transition,” Groce said. “I didn’t think we got back very well, I didn’t think our defensive floor balance discipline was very good, and that was the one thing I was probably disappointed with.”
Interestingly enough, the Illini only turned the ball over seven times, and as Groce indicated, they only took about “seven bad shots,” only a few more ill-advised hoists than usual. For the most part, Illinois had the game in their hands and ran the sets they wanted to. The real problem was execution.
“At the end of the day we didn’t quite throw enough shots in,” Groce said. “I thought our defense did pretty good as well, but we ran into a little bit of a buzz saw.”
Buzz saw puts it pretty well. With the win, the Golden Gopher’s have knocked off 11 straight wins with their lone loss coming against the #1 ranked Duke Blue Devils. Their relentless defensive onslaught coupled with their efficient offense and size proved too much for the Illini. In the Big Ten, you have to move on and prepare for your next opponent. Enter the Wisconsin Badgers.
Wisconsin isn’t sporting their typical Bo Ryan team this season, as they enter Saturday’s contest with an 11-4 record and are without a ranking in either poll. Much like the Illini team, the Badgers lack a true point guard to run the show. Their supposed heir to Jordan Taylor, Josh Gasser, is instead on the sidelines as an assistant coach after suffering a career-ending ACL tear. Sophomore Traevon Jackson and Junior Ben Brust have shared point guard duties and have struggled to put out a consistent offensive threat. With fewer perimeter weapons, coach Ryan implements his big men into his offensive scheme. Senior big men Jared Berggren (13.3 ppg) and Ryan Evans (11.5 ppg) lead the Badgers in scoring, but at 6’10” and 6’6” respectively, are undersized for their positions. Illinois Senior forward Sam McLaurin has been impressed with the play of Berggren.
“He’s a special guy, the thing I noticed from watching him on film is he can do it all,” McLaurin said. “He can put the ball on the floor, he can shoot, in the post he can go over either shoulder.”
The Badgers have less of a bite on offense than usual, but Groce still gives Ryan’s system praise.
“Calculating might be the best word on offense,” Groce said. “They’re determined to get what they wanna get. And not very often will they ever take a bad shot or turn the ball over.”
The Badgers pride themselves on defense, where they’ve allowed the sixth fewest points per game in the nation. Illinois sophomore center Nnanna Egwu believes the contest will showcase a clash of styles.
“They’re going to try to play the game in the 50’s, 40’s, we like to play in the 70’s, 80’s,” Egwu said. “They want us to have as little of possessions as possible and we wanna have as many as we can.”
Wisconsin has won five straight after a rough start and have begun the Big Ten slate 2-0. The Badgers stingy defense, ball control, and inside play will give the Illini fits. Even in a down year for Wisconsin, the Kohl Center is still one of the toughest environments in the nation. In their 12th season under Ryan, Wisconsin has only lost nine conference home games. Groce will look to pick up his 100th victory as a head coach, but it won’t be easy. As the Illini look to right the ship and find the consistency that they strive for, a win at Wisconsin would make quite a statement.