Suddenly, Jan. 12 appears a distant memory for the Wisconsin men’s basketball team.
That day the Badgers (14-7, 5-3 Big Ten) stormed onto the Kohl Center floor and routed an Illinois (15-7, 2-6) team then ranked No. 12 in a 74-51 win. It marked UW’s sixth consecutive victory, its confidence sky-high after shooting 49.1 percent as a team before an emotional upset of second-ranked Indiana in its next game.
“We got off to a good start, and that always helps,” assistant coach Gary Close said of the first game against the Illini. “We knocked shots down — we’ve had some games where we’ve had similar shots that we haven’t made. We’ve been inconsistent shooting the ball all year, so when they go down it looks pretty good.
But that was before Wisconsin was mired in a shooting slump that has the team hitting 36.6 percent of their shots over its last four games.
Round two with the Illini arrives Sunday at 2:30 p.m. when Wisconsin makes the trip to Assembly Hall in search of their third Big Ten road win of the year.
Thanks to exceptionally strong defensive performances — even by Bo Ryan’s standards — Wisconsin remains in good shape as it grinds through an extremely difficult stretch (five of UW’s last six opponents have been ranked). But that does not minimize the importance of rebounding from a 58-49 loss to Ohio State in Columbus Tuesday.
After inching out a home victory over Minnesota, sophomore guard Traevon Jackson said that the game was a must-win. So falling to the Buckeyes only adds to the pressure, a game Jackson said the Badgers need to win to stay in the Big Ten title hunt.
Sitting in the path to that Badgers road victory is senior guard Brandon Paul, the conference’s third-leading scorer with 17.6 points per game. Paul serves as the Illini’s go-to offensive weapon in first-year head coach John Groce’s system.
“He can obviously shoot the three, he’s great attacking, he’s got a pretty good mid-range game, he gets to the free throw line a lot,” Close said. “He’s been doing it for quite awhile now, so he’s established himself as one of the top guards not only in this league but in the country.
“We did a good job on him last time, which is almost scary because you just don’t hold that guy down very often.”
Against the Badgers the first time around, Paul managed just eight points, the only time this year he has not scored in double figures.
Despite dropping five of its last six, Illinois came a retained loose ball away from forcing overtime against Michigan State Thursday in East Lansing, a testament to the team’s talent and ability to stay toe-to-toe with the league’s best.
Aside from Paul, that talent rests in a productive backcourt that boasts two other dangerous scorers in D.J. Richardson (11.9 ppg) and Tracy Abrams (11.5 ppg).
Though the Illini might lack a premier Big Ten big man, they do an athletic, young inside threat in sophomore Nnanna Egwu, who collects 6.3 points and 4.7 rebounds per game.
“They’re still a very good team, they’ve had a little bit of struggle here so far in conference, lost some tough games,” fifth-year senior forward Jared Berggren said. “But we still know the dangerous players they have with Paul and Richardson and those guards and their big guys too that are pretty skilled.”
What Close says may be Illinois most underrated attribute is its ability to create high percentage looks by moving the ball around effectively. Abrams leads the team with 3.3 assists per game, but Close said the Illini have four or five players who can penetrate and draw attention to open up high percentage shots for teammates.
Illinois may be stripped of its national ranking and floundering through the early goings of its conference schedule, but Wisconsin players and coaches alike emphasized its next opponent has the talent to bring down even the Big Ten’s elite. Easy wins simply don’t exist in the country’s premier college basketball conference.
“It’s a dogfight night in and night out, and when you’re a competitor, I don’t know what more you can ask for,” Close said.