Illinois and Wisconsin are set to square off tonight in Madison to try and improve their seeding for the upcoming Big Ten Tournament. The Illini (12-14) are coming off a solid home victory over Rutgers and have had nearly an entire week off to prepare for Greg Gard's squad. But the last time the orange and blue won at the Kohl Center was 2010, and John Groce is 0-6 against the Badgers. Wisconsin is the only Big Ten team that he has yet to pick up a win against. If Illinois were to win tonight it would be the first time they won consecutive conference games since late last year when they beat Northwestern and Nebraska back-to-back.
The last time these two teams matched up was late January in Champaign, when the Badgers came in to the SFC and won by eight, 63-55. Kendrick Nunn put up 15 points to help add to Malcolm Hill's 22, but nobody else had more than six points for the Illini that night and it turned into a disappointing close loss.
Wisconsin (16-10) is coming off a disappointing loss of their own against Michigan State. They'll look to rebound tonight at home to help strengthen their NCAA tournament resume. The Badgers are led by forward Nigel Hayes (17 points, 4 assists per game) and guard Bronson Koenig (13 points per game, 3 rebounds per game). TCR was able to ask B5Q editor Phil Mitten some questions to help preview this matchup against the Badgers.
1. Obviously Wisconsin's season took a dramatic and (maybe?) unexpected turn when Bo Ryan announced in December that he'd be retiring immediately. Was this a big surprise to the Badger community? And how did everyone initially feel about Greg Gard? What do you believe are Gard's chances of keeping the permanent job?
Phil: A coaching change in the middle of the season was unexpected, but not totally unprecedented. Though Bo Ryan stepped away in surprising fashion, anything was possible after all the retirement talk over the summer. At the time when Ryan retired, the general sentiment was that Greg Gard was left in a real tough spot but he was going to get a nice opportunity to prove himself as a high-major head coach. Gard has always been well-respected among the fans and his performance to date has only strengthened the legitimacy of Ryan's convictions about him getting the job. It was reported that one of the booster events this month had an all-time best turnout, so I would say Gard has a very good chance to keep the Wisconsin job if he guides the Badgers to an NCAA tournament berth.
2. It seemed to take Wisconsin some time to adjust to their new coach as Big Ten play started, but now they're red hot. What was the biggest thing that changed to help the team go on that seven-game win streak?
Phil: There wasn't just one thing. Gard went back to using the more structured Swing offense to create movement and the team started responding to that and generating better looks. Nigel Hayes started working the block more, getting to the line and improving his shot selection. He called out the team a little bit before the winning streak and it resulted in the whole group getting more aggressive. And some of the reserves who finally got their shot, like Jordan Hill, started to make plays. Hill still runs hot and cold, but the deeper rotation definitely had helped.
3. The momentum was slowed down a little bit after the MSU loss, but the Badgers are still only 2.5 games back from first place in the conference. Where do you foresee them finishing as we head into the Big Ten Tournament, and how does this projection match up with what the Wisconsin faithful were predicting before the season began?
Phil: With one of the conference's toughest schedules filling out over that last week's of the season, UW is going to fall back to the pack a bit most likely. So it depends on what everyone else does. I'm not anticipating a top four finish, but beating Michigan or Purdue will be the key to securing at least a 6-seed in the conference tourney and going back to the NCAAs. Amazingly, that fits in with preseason expectations, when some publications had Wisconsin hovering around fifth on the league.
4. Early on in the non-conference when the Badgers were dropping games to teams like Western Illinois it seemed to be Nigel Hayes and four other guys. Who's been the biggest surprise so far this season that has stepped up to help fuel Wisconsin's late surge?
Phil: My two biggest surprises have been the Vitto Brown and Alex Illikainen, easily. Brown had been on fire, averaging 17 ppg as a jump shooting power forward during a recent three-game stretch. We knew he liked to shoot but didn't know exactly how he'd contribute in his first year of heavy minutes. But Brown seems to have turned a corner, his scoring and rebounding production back to his non-con levels against softer competition.
Illikainen is someone who I expected to redshirt. That went out the window when freshman center Andy van Vliet was ruled ineligible, but until Gard took over, Illikainen was still an afterthought. However, he's played 16 minutes per game since then as a reserve forward who can keep the defense stretched in the Swing. Though his impact on the box score is minimal outside of a few three-pointers every few games, it has opened the offense up quite a bit and provided some relief from foul trouble.
5. Wisconsin came into Champaign a few weeks ago and handed the Illini an eight-point loss, but the Badgers only shot 14 percent from three and committed nearly 15 turnovers. What is/are Wisconsin's biggest weakness(es) and do you think Illinois has any chance of exploiting them in Madison tonight?
Phil: I guess 12 turnovers is almost 15, but that's not normally a weakness for Wisconsin. No, Wisconsin's most frustrating weakness this season has been the inability to finish at the rim. The Badgers missed tons of layups against MSU, which caused Wisconsin's shooting to crash back to earth, at 33 percent. So a good rebounding team could limit UW's second chances in that scenario and maybe prolong their scoring droughts. Defensively, Wisconsin is fairly solid but inexplicably seems to leave perimeter shooters wide open in transition and also off some screens. The Illini must take advantage to have a shot.