In similar fashion to your Fighting Illini, the Wisconsin Badgers have been a bit of an anomaly this season in the Big Ten. With wins over two ranked teams, No. 14 Iowa and No. 2 Michigan, Wisconsin has looked like the team of old under legendary coach Bo Ryan. The problem is that this team is no longer under Bo Ryan. Instead, Greg Gard has been at the helm since December of 2015.
You would think that a team with two wins over top-20 teams would be close to sniffing the national rankings. The reality is, however, they aren’t. With headscratching losses to 9-9 Western Kentucky and a near defeat at the hand of Rutgers, Wisconsin is a team that is hard to define in 2019. With a few solid pieces and a few holes, Wisconsin is, on the surface, a winnable game for a young Illini squad.
The first key for Illinois is to keep Ethan Happ at bay. Happ is, by far, the most dominant player for Wisconsin. With nearly 20 points and over 10 rebounds per game, Happ can single handedly beat most teams in a given night. There have been very few games where Happ has not been the most dominant player on the court. In fact, over his last four games he has surpassed 20 points with a high of 31 over Purdue.
Not only can he score, rebound, and play defense, but the guy is a minutes hog. He averages over 32 minutes per game. If the Illini want to be successful, they will find a way to play strong down low and force Happ into early foul trouble to keep him off the court for as much as possible.
As things currently stand, Wisconsin is the fourth-best team in the country in regards to turnovers. With a meager 9.7 per game, Wisconsin has shown Gard’s teaching is paying off.
After watching the Illini defense this season, and frankly as well as their offense, I have a hard time fathoming a team that averages one turnover every four minutes. Five per half. Illinois averages 17.33 turnovers forced per game. Something has to give here. Either the brightest spot of the Illini defense will be null and void or Wisconsin will play uncharacteristic and double its turnover rate. Either one will likely spell doom for that team.
At just under 40% and with an average of nearly 8 per game, Wiscy is top-20 nationally in regards to three-point percentage. Illinois sits 252nd nationally in three-point defense. I understand that Illinois numbers jumped pretty well after letting Iowa go 15 for 21 Sunday, but there is a legitimate concern when it comes to good three-point teams against this defense.
The youth of this program tends to leave guys wide open, especially in the corners. That is no knock on them. They are young and learning Underwood’s defensive system. These types of things happen. Yet there is a team coming to town that is nearly lights out from three against a team that doesn’t defend that same shot very well. Illinois will need to pressure at the arc to keep this one in check.
All in all this is the kind of game the Illini should have a shot in. I boldly predicted a win against Iowa on Sunday. That didn’t pan out. HOWEVER, lightening won’t strike twice on my predictions.
Give me the good guys winning at home in front of a crazy Orange Krush, 77-73.
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