A lot of us are still up in the happy clouds after extending the current win streak to four games with a victory over Ohio State on Valentine’s Day, a team Illinois hadn’t beaten on the road since 2009.
While we are quick to crack open the champagne and recognize just what this group has done this past month, up next is a road game at Wisconsin. And that game — more than any of the last four we’ve won during this winning streak (three home games vs Nebraska, Michigan State and Rutgers followed by the roadie at Ohio State) — is far, far more important for a few key reasons.
Eight Years and 14 straight losses to Wisconsin. That matters.
Illinois hasn’t beaten the Badgers in 14 tries, nine of those by double-digits. Illinois hasn’t won a game in Madison in 10 years. At least with the Ohio State streak, the Illini won a few home games against the Buckeyes. Madison hasn’t been kind to Illinois. Illinois hasn’t been kind to anyone in the Big Ten as of late. The Illini must capitalize on this energy they’re playing with.
Bordering State, Extra Hate
There is a lot of Big Ten pride on the line when conference foes tango. UW-Madison’s proximity to Chicago and as a bordering state adds to the intrigue when these two teams go at it.
They are our neighbors to the north, and losing to Wisconsin, and talking about it with our co-workers, friends and family who have gone there and/or live in Wisconsin is a burden that must end. There is pride in Illinois.
Oh yeah, and they’re Packers fans.
Contrasting Styles, Illini have imposed their will lately
Wisconsin looks like Virginia B. Though not as slow and as half-courty as Bo Ryan’s Wisconsin offenses, this is more or less the same Badgers team we’ve come to expect year in and year out (except for last year’s 15-18 meh-ness).
Illinois has suffocated opponents. They’ve forced teams into taking bad shots and turning the ball over. For the first time, Illinois fans can see what Brad Underwood calls “organized chaos” in motion. When it works (and it’s been working), it’s fire and fury in the best way.
The improvement has been off the charts and the quality of this Illini team is nothing close to what Wisconsin saw just a month ago. The tempo, guard play and Giorgi Bezhanishvili’s ability to put the ball in the net is a whole different animal this time around.
Illini can win ugly — Ohio State was proof
Illinois beat Rutgers in overtime. That was a great basketball game. Illinois beat Ohio State by seven points in regulation. That was not a great basketball game.
The Illini don’t just rely on steals and fast break points. They don’t rely on outside shooting. What’s been most impressive about this new-found Illini is their half court defense.
Scoring droughts happen, especially on the road. Against the Buckeyes, the Illini offense was stifled:
now over four minutes. things are starting to get sloppy https://t.co/cTGD1r86BD— Tristen Kissack (@TKissack20) February 15, 2019
Offensive flow can come and go. What can remain constant, and what was the strength of Illinois’ team on Thursday night was the half-court defense. That’s why Ohio State was only able to go up one point for less than a minute in the middle of the Illini’s four-to-five minute scoring drought in the second half.
Illinois fans are used to capitulation. Some of us watching were thinking “here’s where the Buckeyes pull ahead for good.” That’s not what happened. The defense held Ohio State to just 36 percent shooting on the night and forced 18 turnovers. That’s a winning formula.
Beating Ohio State and Michigan State was huge for the program. Beating Wisconsin would be ultimate validation.
Ohio State has more four- and five-stars than Wisconsin does. Ohio State is more of the power program in the Big Ten, but playing Wisconsin — especially winning in Madison — has been a nightmare for the Illini.
It hurts. Illini Nation is tired of it. Erasing the 14-game win streak as part of Illinois’ own win streak would count for so much more than just another Big Ten win.
It would validate that Brad Underwood’s system and his ability to connect with his players can work, and may we even say will work at Illinois if he can maintain the level of talent currently on the team.
There’s fight. There’s defensive ambition. There’s positivity and excitement. Are the Illini back?