Hoping to get to .500 in Big Ten Conference play, the 12th-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini pull into Madison for Saturday's pivotal clash with the Wisconsin Badgers.
Illinois won its first 12 games of the season to make folks stand up and take notice of the job first-year head coach John Groce was doing in re- establishing the Illini as a team to be reckoned with in the Big Ten. Unfortunately, an 82-73 loss to rival Missouri on Dec. 22 started the team on a downward trend that has seen it drop three of its last five, the most recent of which being an 84-67 home loss to No. 8 Minnesota.
Wisconsin is hoping to extend its current winning streak, which stands at five straight, as the team sits at 11-4 overall and 2-0 in conference. The Badgers had their weakest offensive showing of the year, but also one of their finest defensive efforts as they posted a 47-41 win at Nebraska last Sunday. UW is 9-1 at home this season, and a win in this contest would make the team 3-0 to start conference play for the first time since the 2008-09 campaign.
Illinois owns a 110-78 lead in the all-time series with Wisconsin, but the Badgers prevailed in the most recent meeting -- 70-56 at home on March 4, 2012.
Brandon Paul poured in 21 points, while fellow guards D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams added 14 apiece, but those efforts went for naught as Illinois dropped a 17-point decision at home to Minnesota on Wednesday night. The Illini made good on only 35.4 percent of their field goal attempts, and they were particularly brutal from long range (3-of-24). UI turned the ball over only seven times, but the Golden Gophers converted 52.9 percent of their total shots, which included draining 9-of-15 3-point tries. The backcourt trio of Paul (18.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.3 apg), Abrams (12.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.4 apg) and Richardson (10.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) continues to pace the team in all major statistical categories, and Illinois is putting up 75.2 ppg while allowing 65.8 ppg. Favorable margins exist in both rebounding (+0.6) and turnovers (+3.1), although barely.
Despite shooting just 37.7 percent from the field and missing the mark on 13 of their 17 3-point attempts, the Badgers escaped their recent trip to Lincoln with a six-point win over the Cornhuskers. Jared Berggren led all scorers with 13 points, while Ryan Evans logged a double-double consisting of 10 points and 15 rebounds. Mike Bruesewitz grabbed 10 boards in helping Wisconsin to a narrow edge on the glass (38-35). Both teams took very good care of the basketball, combining for only 14 turnovers, but the Badgers dialed up the defense in allowing the home team to connect on a mere 36.7 percent of its total shots, which included a 2-of-12 effort from beyond the arc. Berggren (13.3 ppg, 6.1rgp) is one of three double-digit scorers on the season for Wisconsin, which puts up 70.6 ppg while permitting a mere 54.9 ppg. Evans (11.5 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and Ben Brust (11.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) excel at both ends of the floor as well, helping the Badgers lay claim to a +6.1 rebounding differential. UW also wins the turnover battle, as it is guilty of only 8.7 tpg while the opposition coughs it up an average of 13.5 times per tilt.