The Illinois Fighting Illini (17-9, 7-6) marched into Madison on a four game win streak, but they ran into a steel wall on Sunday afternoon against the No. 5 Wisconsin Badgers (23-2, 11-1). The Badgers' front court bullied Illinois all afternoon long on their way to a 68-49 victory as Frank Kaminsky, Sam Dekker, and Nigel Hayes combined for 47 points and 19 rebounds on 20/33 shooting.
The Illini will have a week off before facing Michigan State next Sunday; the matchup could very well determine Illinois' tournament fate. Before we get too far ahead of ourselves, here are some observations from the team's loss in Madison.
1. It is what it is
Illinois just lost a road game to the No. 5 team in the nation. A win would've vaulted the Illini into the NCAA Tournament, but this loss really doesn't hurt their resume in any way, shape, or form. The way it looks now, Illinois will need to win three of their last five games to secure a bid which means next Sunday's game against Michigan State could make or break the season.
Leron Black was, again, a no-show today after picking up two early fouls. Black was obviously great against Indiana and Purdue, but he's had almost zero impact over the last five or six games; he finished today's contest with two fouls and one turnover--that's it.
Should John Groce make a switch in the starting lineup? Probably not because, when he's playing well, Black's presence down low becomes an integral part of Illinois' strategy on both ends of the court.
3. Colbert is coming into his own
Let's talk about how well Austin Colbert has been playing. The sophomore forward couldn't sniff the court for most of the season, but he's now playing significant minutes in the team's stretch run. Colbert finished the day with 5 points and 3 rebounds on 2/2 shooting, but his impact goes far beyond the box score; he's constantly attacking the offensive boards and creating second opportunities for his teammates.
There was a time in which fans had all but written off Colbert as a future transfer, but he's become a huge part of this team. Keep up the good work, Austin.
4. Malcolm Hill is simply incredible
Malcolm Hill is fast approaching "elite" status in the Big Ten. In a day in which Illinois couldn't get anything going offensively, Hill still managed to finish with 15 points on 5/9 shooting (2/3 from three-point range). Hill appears to be a sure-fire pick for Third Team All-Big Ten, but he's making a late push for Second Team honors. Either way, he's going to be an absolute joy to watch for, hopefully, the next two years.
5. Defensive switches were exposed
Illinois' defensive strategy was terrible today. Throughout the game, defensive switches were resulting in Ahmad Starks and Jaylon Tate guarding Frank Kaminsky in the post. Wisconsin is the most efficient offensive team in the country--why help them out like that? A few adjustments were made at halftime, but there were still several occurrences when Nnanna Egwu was up at the top of a zone while Rayvonte Rice was down low bodying-up Kaminsky. Big Frank could've realistically had about 40 points today, but his teammates didn't look to give him the ball nearly as much during the second half.
Illinois Fighting Illini: