Illini to face similarly struggling Badgers on Tuesday

Illinois’ Joseph Bertrand (2) secures a loose ball during the game against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center in Madison, Wisc. on Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014. The Illini lost, 95-70.

There are no easy nights in Big Ten basketball. There’s evidence in that Illinois has not won a basketball game in a month and Wisconsin, ranked as high as third in the country at one time, has lost five of six and dropped out of the national rankings.

When the teams last met on Jan. 8, Wisconsin was undefeated and touted as one of the best teams in the country. Illinois stood at 13-2, ranked No. 23 in the country.

Oh how things have changed.

Illinois (13-9, 2-7 Big Ten) sits in sole possession of last place in the conference. Wisconsin (17-5, 4-5) has some major catching up to do if it still has hopes of a conference title. The Illini and the Badgers will face each other for a second time Tuesday night at State Farm Center in Champaign.

For Illinois, there is solace in the fact that the Illini may have played their best 30 minutes of basketball in Saturday’s 81-74 loss to Iowa after a horrendous start to the game.

“We laced them up and played really hard,” head coach John Groce said. “I thought we did some really good things at both ends of the floor. (Our players) gave us everything they had and then some on Saturday.”

The key is to not spot the opponent 20-some points in the game’s first 10 minutes. That’s what happened Saturday against the Hawkeyes and that’s what happened the first time the Illini met the Badgers. 

Wisconsin beat Illinois 95-70 in Madison, Wisc., that night, the first of Illinois’ seven straight losses.

“They made a lot of shots early,” senior Joseph Bertrand said of that game. “I don’t think we played defense like we know we can. We lost a couple of guys in transition. That really hurt us.”

For Groce, watching the film of that game again wasn’t a fun experience. The Badgers went into halftime up 25 and Illinois played them evenly the second half.

When asked how his Illini were able to hang with the Badgers in the second half, Groce thought it was more Wisconsin stepping off the gas than any adjustments his players made.   

“I didn’t think we did much of anything,” Groce said. “Unfortunately, I had to watch it again and still I thought we were very selfish defensively. We were locked on our man and played it like it was five one-on-one games.”

“They were more disciplined than us,” added point guard Tracy Abrams. “That was the biggest difference. We’ve got to go out and execute our game plan. We’ve got to be very detailed.”

Wisconsin features four players averaging double-figure points per game, with Sam Dekker and Ben Brust leading the way at 13.5 and 13.2, respectively. All five starters are capable outside shooters, including 6-foot-11 Frank Kaminsky. Wisconsin is also one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten, surrendering 63.3 points per game.

The Badgers, like the Illini, are coming off a hard-fought loss. Wisconsin fell to Ohio State 59-58 Saturday, dropping back-to-back home games for the first time since 1998.

But Tuesday they are back on the road against an Illinois squad looking to avoid its first eight-game losing streak since 1974, when it lost a stretch of 11 straight games. 

“I’m pretty sure they’ll come out hungry tomorrow,” Rayvonte Rice said. “Just like us.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.