Despite seven-game skid, Illinois will upset Wisconsin

Illinois’ head coach John Groce reacts to the play during the game against Iowa at State Farm Center on Saturday. The Illini lost 81-74.

The Illinois men’s basketball team’s brutal stretch of games has lived up to expectations.

The Illini have already played three ranked opponents in its last four games, and now a pesky Wisconsin squad comes to town. Illinois will have to face a team Tuesday that embarrassed it in a 95-70 loss on Jan. 8. That doesn’t exactly bode well for Illinois’ chances at ending this seven-game losing skid.

Even amid the program’s longest losing streak since 1999, I’m still picking Illinois to pull off the upset Tuesday at State Farm Center.

Something sparked in this team during that unexpected 21-point comeback against Iowa on Saturday. This wasn’t an instance of a team making lucky shots or getting fortuitous bounces, Illinois legitimately tapped into its potential during a ridiculous 20-minute stretch.

Illinois trailed 34-13 against Iowa with 7:34 remaining in the first half. The team looked lifeless, devout of energy and without anywhere to go offensively. The Illini would go on to outscore the Hawkeyes 53-27 in the next 18 minutes and change, leading 66-61 with 9:03 left in the game. Illinois made 19-of-27 field goals at one point, demonstrating how the team flipped a switch. That switch is going to stay on against Wisconsin.

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!

You don’t dominate a team of Iowa’s caliber for that long of a stretch without playing extremely well. John Groce head coach for Illinois said the last 30 minutes of the game were the best his team has played in the Big Ten this season. Many of the adjustments Groce made against Iowa could be just as effective against Wisconsin.

Expect Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill to play early and often against Wisconsin. The two freshmen helped spark Saturday’s comeback with back-to-back 3-pointers near the end of the first half. Groce said Nunn has been a solid on-ball defender all season, but even he had to be surprised by the freshman’s four assists. Hill has been among the most aggressive players on the team, constantly looking for his own shot while tearing down rebounds at a high level. The duo played 30 combined minutes in the last game against Wisconsin, but many of those minutes came in garbage time.

Another adjustment Illinois made against Iowa was moving the ball at a much higher rate. Illinois had just four assists — no really, four assists — against Wisconsin the last time they played. Wisconsin’s Traevon Jackson had four assists in that game on his own. Groce praised his team’s offensive effort Monday, saying the team’s shot selection was much better as his team shared the ball. Well-coached team’s like Wisconsin are too disciplined to falter against a one-dimensional offense. Illinois will need to continue to move the ball this time around.

Perhaps the biggest adjustment Illinois made against Iowa wasn’t an adjustment at all. The team just started to play harder.

“Those 12 guys gave us everything they had on Saturday night and then some,” Groce said.

Groce said one play in particular, where Joseph Bertrand leaped over the scorer’s table for a loose ball, amassed six Matto points for his team, saying that number is “unheard of.”

Groce called out his team for being selfish defensively last time out against Wisconsin. The Illini were slow to help against Wisconsin and played too much one-on-one defense. The Badgers’ shot 56.1 percent, which isn’t exactly surprising for the 10th most efficient offense in the country, according to advanced-stats guru Ken Pomeroy. Their adjusted offensive efficiency, which estimates the team’s points scored per 100 possessions, is 117.9 despite facing the best opposing adjusted defense in the nation (based on their opponents’ average points allowed per 100 possessions).

Despite the team’s prolific offense, Wisconsin’s style is actually a better matchup for Illinois’ defense. Iowa consistently beat Illinois down the floor in a much faster paced offense. Wisconsin’s more deliberate approach will allow Illinois’ defense to set, something Groce said his team struggled to do against Iowa.

Illinois should also have an easier time on the boards against Wisconsin, which is ranked just No. 242 in the nation in rebounds per game. Iowa, which is third in the country in rebounds per game, destroyed Illinois on the boards, pulling down 15 offensive rebounds.

Wisconsin isn’t the No. 4 juggernaut Illinois faced on Jan. 8. The Badgers have lost five of their last six games after starting the season 16-0. Illinois has what it takes to pull off the upset. If the ball movement is crisp and the effort from Saturday is there, this seven-game losing streak will be history.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb.