Illini head to Madison

By Lucas Deal

Following a pair of solid home wins last week, the Illinois men’s basketball team heads back on the road for a 6 p.m. game against fellow Big Ten co-leader Wisconsin in Madison.

While both teams enter the game with 5-2 conference records, they appear to be heading in different directions.

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The No. 6-ranked Illini (19-2) have won three straight dating back to a 58-47 win at Northwestern on Jan. 21 while the Badgers have dropped three of their last four. Wisconsin (15-5) opened the Big Ten season 4-0 before finally falling at Ohio State on Jan. 18. Since then, the Badgers have also lost at home to D-1 newcomer North Dakota State and at Michigan.

Illini head coach Bruce Weber hopes the Badgers’ struggles continue tonight, but isn’t entirely sure what to expect.

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    “You just have to blank out North Dakota State because they’re still a very good team,” he said. “I hope they’re down a little bit, because it’s when you play a team that matters. They also lost at Michigan and they might be mean and tough about it and that won’t be a good time.”

    Weber also added that since the Big Ten’s unbalanced schedule currently favors Wisconsin, it is important for his team to take advantage of the Badgers while they have the chance.

    “They’re not coming here because of the singles and that’s not in our advantage,” he said. “But you can’t do anything about it, you just have to go out and win.”

    A big key to Illinois’ recent winning streak has been the play of sophomore forward Brian Randle. Despite playing very little because of foul trouble in the first half of Illinois’ last two games, “The Freak,” as he was recently dubbed, was instrumental in the second half of both wins.

    Incredibly agile, Randle can use his athleticism and leaping ability to give Illinois another dimension on offense as well as smothering defense, which Weber said will be needed against Wisconsin star forward Alando Tucker.

    “Randle’s got to guard him,” Weber said of the six-foot-five-inch Tucker, who currently leads the Badgers in scoring at 18.7 points per game. “He can go inside and outside so well.”

    If the Illini are able to knock off the Badgers, they will enter the second half of the conference season tied for first place at 6-2. On the other hand, a loss would drop the Illini out of first place and into a logjam at 5-3. And with three of Illinois’ last four road opponents being ranked, Weber said the last thing his team needs is to be forced to win out on the road. Luckily, he doesn’t expect that to be necessary.

    “This is old school Big Ten right now,” he said. “If you win your home games and split on the road, you’ve got a chance.”