Five days ago, Wisconsin dominated Illinois en route to a 72-57 victory in Champaign. As a result, the line between the two teams is clear as they meet for a third time this afternoon.
The 13th-ranked Badgers have secured their spot in next week’s NCAA Tournament. Conversely, the Illini could have their bubble burst with a loss. Still, it’s not like fourth seeded Wisconsin has nothing to play for.
Illinois did, after all, beat the Badgers 63-56 at the Kohl Center just over a month ago. To borrow a term from the national pastime, Friday’s matinee is the rubber match between the two squads, and UW is not going to go down lightly.
“They came in here, they stole something from us; we did the same to them,” senior guard Trevon Hughes said. “We want to find out who’s the better team. It’s kind of like the NBA playoffs — that’s how it feels.”
It’s not often in college basketball that two teams play consecutive games against each other, but it’s not entirely without precedent either. In 2007, after beating Michigan State 52-50 at home on March 3, Wisconsin beat the Spartans again six days later, 70-57.
According to sophomore guard Jordan Taylor, the quick rematch against the Illini is something he’s looking forward to. He does not, however, expect the game to be too similar to the teams’ regular season finale.
“I think that brings out rivalry aspects between two different teams, when you see them so close to each other,” Taylor said. “Either way, it’s going to be a whole different game this time around and we’ve got to come out and try to duplicate what we did on Sunday.”
A repeat of the Badgers’ domination would be especially surprising considering the way they shut down Demetri McCamey, a first team all-Big Ten selection. McCamey, who scored 27 points in Illinois’ victory at the Kohl Center, managed just 11 points Sunday in the loss.
Avenging that poor performance, coupled with the need for a win should give Illinois plenty to play for. Wisconsin, on the other hand, seems poised to be no higher than a No. 3 seed and no lower than a No. 5 seed, regardless of its performance on the weekend.
Especially when considering the Big Ten tournament championship game has proven over the years to have little impact on the NCAA Tournament seeding, due to its late nature as the last game before the field is announced.
Still, don’t think the Badgers don’t have anything to play for. Head coach Bo Ryan’s squad missed a share of the Big Ten regular season title by just one game. Now, they’ve got a chance to win a different title.
“We felt like we didn’t have nothing to play for at the end of our regular season because we [were] out of the title race,” Hughes said. “At the same time, we could also win a trophy and a ring, and that’s the beauty of the thing. Now we’ve got something to play for.”
To win the Big Ten tournament title, the Badgers will have the toughest road of the top four seeds in the conference. First, they’ll play Illinois, which has the most to play for of the teams seeded fifth or lower.
If Wisconsin wins its tournament opener, the next opponent on the list would be top-seeded Ohio State, barring any unforeseen upset in the Buckeyes’ opener.
Yet, considering neither losing team was at full strength as the teams’ split the two matchups, it’s unclear how a game between the two would play out with both Jon Leuer and Evan Turner in their respective lineups.
A win over the Buckeyes would likely pit the Badgers against either the third seeded Michigan State Spartans or second seeded Purdue Boilermakers. During the regular season, UW split with both teams, as the host squad won each of the four contests.
Regardless of the opponents they draw, the Badgers will look to win the Big Ten tournament title for the third time in the event’s 13-year history. It would be the first for Wisconsin since 2008.
Additionally, with a conference tournament title on its r?sum?, Wisconsin may have an opportunity to play in Milwaukee for the early rounds and would certainly be in position to make a deeper run in the Tournament.
And that is something the Badgers have been looking to do since losing to Xavier nearly a year ago on March 22, 2009. But first, they’ll have to take care of business against Illinois.
“It’s very key for us not to look ahead at all,” senior guard Jason Bohannon said. “Any time you look ahead or take some team for granted, they’re going to jump up and get you. … That’s going to be our focus right now … to take Illinois and not worry about what happens in the other games.”