Coming off a disappointing loss at OSU, Wisconsin (14-7, 5-3) travels south to Champaign to take on the Illini of Illinois (15-7, 2-6 B1G). You can catch the game on BTN with a 2:30 tip from Assembly Hall.
In their previous meeting this season, Illinois met Wisconsin in the thick of their best play all season. You could tell the Badgers were rolling early on, as they jumped out to a 14-0 lead to start the game. It didn't get any prettier, and Wisconsin soared to a 74-51 win thanks to Jared Berggren's best performance of the year with 15 points and 12 rebounds.
In that game Wisconsin played exceptional defense on Illinois' star PG Brandon Paul, who shot just 1-11 with 8 points. The Illini's 51 points that game were the fewest they have scored all season.
After Illinois' horrendous season last year, they parted ways with long time coach Bruce Weber. They hired Ohio's head coach, John Groce.
Groce had his new team playing spectacular basketball out of the gate, jumping out to a 12-0 start and cracking the top 10 in most polls. Illinois looked very well rounded and seemed to be a potential threat to win the Big Ten.
Then, the wheels fell off the wagon.... AGAIN.
Since December 22nd, the Illini have gone 3-7 including losing 5 of their last 6 games. They are off to a 2-6 record in Big Ten play, good enough for third from the bottom in the conference. But, what's changed for them to have the wheels fall off?
One is the step up in comeptition on a night in and night out basis, let's face it, they didn't play the best non-conference schedule out there outside of Bulter and Gonzaga. Two, well, they have zero inside presence and that has killed them. Just how bad is it? Their point guard, Brandon Paul, not only leads the team in scoring but also in rebounding (4.7) alongside foward Nnanna Egwu. Simply put, that's not good news in a conference as rough and tumble as the Big Ten is.
The Illini's most important player this season has been Senior PG Brandon Paul, who's really taken up a leadership role to this team, similar to what Jordan Taylor did for Wisconsin last year.
Paul is having a great season so far, averaging 17.6 points, 2.9 assists and 4.7 rebounds a game while shooting a solid 42.1% from the field and 40% from three. Paul has really carried the Illini and without his production, they'd be a disaster of a team.
The last time these two teams met, Traevon Jackson did a wonderful job of containing Brandon Paul, who scored just 8 points on 1-11 shooting.
If the Badgers want to win this game, they'll have to contain Paul like they did last meeting, especially if UW finds themselves shooting poorly.
Illinois is a team struggling to keep its head above the NIT Tournament waves that oh so badly want to crash down and claim them. In comparison, Wisconsin is still navigating the waves successfully, but their arms are getting tired very rapidly. In this game, both teams are looking push each other further down in to the water.
If you couldn't understand my brilliant analogy, here it is in other words; a win or lose by either of these teams in this game would go a long way in their mission towards the NCAA tournament, or their destiny of the NIT.
Many people are saying this is a "must win" for Wisconsin, and I think the Badgers are approaching it that way. Look for them to come out swinging in this game.
Prediction: Wisconsin 61, Illinois 56.