Illinois basketball’s depth tested at Wisconsin

By Joey Figueroa

Those guys in Wisconsin are pretty good. Illinois learned that the hard way on Sunday afternoon.

Extending its winning streak to five games with a win over the No. 5 team in the country proved to be too large of a task for the Illinois basketball team (17-9, 7-6 Big Ten) as they fell to the Badgers (23-2, 11-1) 68-49 in Madison, Wisconsin.

Following Thursday’s win over Michigan, Illinois’ depth looked like one of its strongest assets. In Sunday’s loss, it was Wisconsin that dominated with its spread-out scoring attack.

Of course, Frank Kaminsky put up his numbers, finishing with 23 points and 11 rebounds, but once the Illini began to key in on the skilled seven-footer, other Badgers stepped up and the Wisconsin offense didn’t miss a beat. The Illini flew around the court on defense, making the Badgers throw extra pass after extra pass, but Wisconsin’s fourth-ranked Big Ten offense was just too fluid to slow down.

Besides Kaminsky, three other Badgers scored in double figures. Illinois had just two double-figure scorers with Malcolm Hill and Rayvonte Rice scoring 15 and 10, respectively. Wisconsin’s Big Ten-leading defense forced Illinois to work way too hard for every shot, making it seem like almost every possession ended with a desperation attempt as the shot clock ticked down.

Once the Badgers ran away with the game in the second half, Illinois spent most of the time searching for scoring. Sophomore guard Kendrick Nunn couldn’t follow up his stellar 21-point performance on Thursday and was basically nonexistent Sunday, finishing with four points on 2-of-10 shooting. Rice brought nice intensity for the second-straight game, but his 4-of-12 shooting performance showed his rust coming off a nine-game absence. The Jaylon Tate-Ahmad Starks point guard duo couldn’t get Illinois into its offensive sets and combined for just four points and three assists.

This wasn’t near the same type of all-around performance the Illini put together against Michigan.

Following the loss, head coach John Groce was most disappointed with his team’s execution on the boards. Illinois was out-rebounded 32-25 and allowed 15 offensive rebounds, which proved to be detrimental against one of the most prolific offenses in the Big Ten. The Badgers’ work on the boards led to 12 second-chance points and made the Illini exert extra energy on defense that could have been spent on the offensive end.

Leron Black may have been able to remedy the rebounding situation, but he became the forgotten man after going to the bench with a couple of fouls early on.

Kaminsky did most of his damage with a 17-point first half, during which the Illini kept the game close. Illinois did just enough to stay in the game until Wisconsin ripped off a 10-2 run to end the half. That run spilled over into the second half, and the Illini couldn’t pull within more than nine points for the remainder of the game.

After a rare poor game against Michigan on Thursday, Hill was one of the lone bright spots amid the 19-point drubbing. His 15 points came on an efficient 5-of-7 shooting performance, the norm for the rising sophomore lately.

Senior center Nnanna Egwu also found himself in a nice rhythm early, nailing a couple of turnaround shots in the post, but chasing around Kaminsky on the other end of the floor limited what he could do offensively.

It’s games like these that have people questioning Illinois’ legitimacy this season. During its four-game winning streak, Illinois only picked up a win against one team ranked in the top half in the Big Ten in scoring average. Of the Illini’s seven Big Ten wins this season, only three came against teams in the top half of the Big Ten standings.

With only two games remaining against teams in the upper-half of the Big Ten, the Illini won’t have many opportunities to prove they can hang with more quality teams. Illinois’ next opponent, Michigan State, is one of those teams, and with an impressive road win over the Spartans already this season, it will be important for Illinois to get back on track against them at home next Sunday.

A week off might be just what Illinois needs to start a new winning streak.

Joey can be reached at [email protected] and on Twitter

@joeyfigueroa3.