Illinois men’s basketball looks to notch sole possession of first place in Big Ten, takes on Wisconsin on Wednesday


Cameron Krasucki

Illinois guard Andre Curbelo dribbles while being guarded by Wisconsin forward Tyler Wahl during the game on Feb. 6 in Champaign. Curbelo is expected to return after a two-game absence as the No. 18 Illini welcome the No. 11 Badgers to State Farm Center on Wednesday night.

By Jackson Janes, Sports Editor

Few people expected Wisconsin to contend in the Big Ten after losing four of its top five scorers from last year in guard D’Mitrik Trice (first with 13.9 points), forward Micah Potter (second with 12.6 points), forward Aleem Ford (fourth with 8.9 points) and forward Nate Reuvers (fifth with 8.4 points).

The Badgers finished with an 18-13 record and tied for sixth place in the conference in 2021, bowing out of the NCAA tournament, in which it was a nine-seed, in the second round to eventual national champion Baylor.

Despite putting together a solid campaign and losing several key contributors, No. 11 Wisconsin (17-3) enters Wednesday night’s contest with No. 18 Illinois (15-5) tied for first in the Big Ten, with the Badgers, Illini and the No. 13 Michigan State Spartans all sitting joint first with an 8-2 conference record.

“They’re playing a little more open, a little faster,” said Illini head coach Brad Underwood. “(Sophomore guard Johnny) Davis has made an incredible jump from his freshman to his sophomore year, and then Brad Davison is playing at an all-conference level. And then to see Tyler Wahl step up; Tyler’s averaging 15 or 16 in his last five (games). This is a very, very good Wisconsin basketball team.”

Davis is a big reason why the Badgers have flourished this season. He has quickly jumped into the National Player of the Year and Big Ten Player of the Year conversations, and he leads his team in four major statistical categories: points (21.4), rebounds (7.9), assists (2.4) and steals (1.3).

Get The Daily Illini in your inbox!

  • Catch the latest on University of Illinois news, sports, and more. Delivered every weekday.
  • Stay up to date on all things Illini sports. Delivered every Monday.
This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.
Thank you for subscribing!

Though containing Davis could be a challenge, the Illini have proven to be capable of shutting down their opponents’ most dangerous shooters, and senior guards Trent Frazier and Da’Monte Williams have been big reasons why.

In the last two games, their defense has helped the Illini pick up narrow victories. The pair held Northwestern guard Boo Buie to nine points on 3-11 shooting, though three of those points came on an uncontested shot as the clock expired in Illinois’ 59-56 win on Saturday. They also held Michigan State guard Max Christie to just two points on 1-8 shooting.

The defensive dominance of Williams and Frazier was a big factor in the Illini’s win in Evanston, but the freshmen guard duo of RJ Melendez and Brandin Podziemski came through when veterans struggled to produce offensively.

The pair combined for 11 points on 4-7 shooting, with a Melendez dunk in the first half and a late Podziemski triple – along with the return of junior center Kofi Cockburn, who scored 22 points – headlining an otherwise ugly Illini win.

“It’s great to see guys that work really hard be able to get rewarded,” Underwood said. “The most impressive thing to me was the lack of nervousness or fear that RJ and Podz played with. They just stepped up and were tremendous.”

Sophomore guard Andre Curbelo is available to return on Wednesday. After missing 11 games and returning against No. 4 Purdue on Jan. 17, Curbelo sat out the last two games after entering health and safety protocol.

Underwood says that Illinois will “be diligent with what we do” with the reigning Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, though he is grateful to have him back after already missing a significant portion of his sophomore season.

“I’m excited to have him back participating against one of the best teams in the country coming in here,” Underwood said.

Barring weather issues due to the winter storm hitting the Midwest, Wednesday’s game will tip off at 8 p.m. from State Farm Center in Champaign.



[email protected]