What a week it has been for Illinois. It began last Saturday when, riding a two-game winning streak, the Illini sprung an unexpected upset at Michigan State to shock the Spartans. Then, in front of a sellout crowd at State Farm Center, Rayvonte Rice returned to the rotation and helped fuel Illinois to an emotional and impressive comeback against the Michigan Wolverines. The star of the game, though, was sophomore standout Kendrick Nunn.
With the Illini down by five and only 1:45 seconds left in the game, Nunn hit a pretty left-handed floater in the lane and followed it up with a clutch game-tying three from the corner. From there, Illinois never looked back. After trailing for nearly the entire game, an incredible 21-0 run in the final minutes of regulation and overtime sparked a comeback for the ages. John Groce's squad only allowed two points to Michigan in the extra session and won by double-digits. The Illini have now won four straight games and are arguably one of the hottest teams in the conference, just in time for a showdown with the squad currently looking down at everybody else in the standings: the Wisconsin Badgers.
The Badgers have simply dominated for most of the college basketball season, and were ranked second overall in the country for over a month. They've only suffered two losses (to Duke and then Rutgers) and both of them were close throughout. The Scarlet Knights are currently sitting in second-to-last place in the Big Ten and Wisconsin was missing their two best players that night so you have to assume that that loss was merely a fluke. Their NCAA tournament resume is also solid, boasting quality wins over Georgetown, Oklahoma, Cal, Iowa (twice), and Indiana. But their toughest stretch of the season has still yet to arrive; their final five games include trips to Maryland, Minnesota and Ohio State as well as home games against the Spartans and the Gophers.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Jaylon Tate | SO
- Kendrick Nunn | SO
- Malcolm Hill | SO
- Leron Black | FR
- Nnanna Egwu | SR
- Bronson Koenig | SO
- Josh Gasser | SR
- Sam Dekker | JR
- Frank Kaminsky | SR
- Nigel Hayes | SO
Keys to the game:
1. Build on the momentum
Let's face it, this team is finally headed in the right direction; after falling to 1-3 in the conference and 13-8 overall, the Illini have rattled off four straight including some impressive victories over quality opponents. But even after the non-conference some fans were saying John Groce was on the hot seat (a ridiculous notion in my opinion, but that's a whole different topic). It's clear right now that he's got Illinois in a position to receive an NCAA tournament bid come March, and this game won't really hurt the Illini no matter what happens. Would a twenty or thirty-point loss look good to the committee? Obviously not. But Wisconsin is one of the best teams in the country and suffering a defeat against them in the Kohl Center is not a bad loss no matter how you spin it. It's the most likely outcome too. But if you're Illinois, you've got to just let it fly on Sunday afternoon. You're not expected to win and you won't be penalized if you don't, so just continue to build on the momentum that's gotten you to 7-5 in the conference and who knows what might happen.
2. Contain Koenig
Wisconsin's only major "crisis" so far this season was when their starting point guard, Traevon Jackson, went down with a fractured foot in the second half against Rutgers. He had surgery the following week and is expected to be out for several more games. The point guard duties have now fallen on the shoulders of sophomore Bronson Koenig, and he has not disappointed. Since taking over for Jackson he's averaged 12.7 points per game and is shooting nearly 55% from three-point range. His assist-to-turnover ratio, 3.6, is sixth-best in all of college basketball and he has really bloomed in the wake of Jackson's foot issues. The Badger offense overall is impressive, but Koenig is a somewhat-undiscovered-yet-large part of it. According to KenPom's rankings, Wisconsin is the nation's number-one offense, averaging nearly 1.25 points per possession. If the Illini can contain the extremely talented Bronson Koenig, they can focus their defensive efforts on star forward Frank Kaminsky.
3. Get Rayvonte Rice going
Rice saw his first game action in over a month this past week against Michigan, and it was clear that he was rusty. He accumulated four fouls before scoring, and ended with a mere four points. But the lightbulb seemed to finally click back on for the senior guard once the game went into overtime, and he had several clutch steals and rebounds that led to the Illini victory. If Rice can take what he did in the final moments of the Michigan game and apply it to the entire Wisconsin game, he'll start to look more like his old self. And that's the Rayvonte Rice Illinois is going to need if they want to beat the Badgers.
The Illini are certainly hot right now, riding that aforementioned four-game winning streak. It's unfortunate, though, that their next matchup had to be against Wisconsin in Madison, a place where hardly any Big Ten teams come away with a victory. This game will most likely be close throughout, especially if Illinois is firing on all cylinders from the opening tip. But the Badgers have won four-straight conference games by double-digits, and they will seemingly always find a way to eventually create space between themselves and their opponent when they're at home.
TCR Prediction: Wisconsin 72, Illinois 60
KenPom Prediction: Wisconsin 72, Illinois 59 (9% W)