After two straight losses, Illinois was understandably discouraged and frustrated. But it went back to work and focused on winning at Iowa City. The ten point win wasn't perfect, but the Illini need to win every road game possible in the rugged Big 10. Illini coach Bruce Weber summarized the win over Iowa.
"The shooting helped us win the game. We had such dismal shooting the last two games. We thought we were a pretty good shooting team, so when you shoot like that a couple games you start wondering. That was the key; it got us off to a great start.
"We talk about finishing the half well and starting the second half well, and we did that. It was disappointing, I think we got up 18 or 19 and within a couple minutes they had cut it to 11. You never think it's gonna be easy on the road, but if we can find ways to mentally not break down on defense when we have big leads or get careless with our offense, those are things we can correct.
"We had great balanced scoring, five guys in double figures. We've said all along, we go as Demetri (McCamey) goes. He had a double-double. I thought defensively we were okay but maybe gave them too many open looks. We're not as intense when we get leads. It would be nice to sustain leads; it would make it a lot easier at the end of games."
Illini players acknowledged the value of defeating Iowa.
"It was huge for us," Bill Cole testified. "They're a much improved team. Any time you can go on the road and win in the Big 10, it's big for your team. We gutted that one out. We had a big lead and let them back in, but it showed that we made progress because we shut them out at the end."
D.J. Richardson, who shot lights out at Iowa City, says the whole team got back on track at the right time.
"It was a big win. It gave us confidence, stopped a two game losing streak and gave us momentum going into Big 10 play."
Wisconsin is a well-coached team that finds ways to win year after year. Coach Bo Ryan has a system that works for him, and the players know their roles. Weber has great respect for them.
"You thought going into it, without (Jason) Bohannan, (Trevon) Hughes and (Joe Krabbenhoff), that they were maybe gonna struggle a little bit. But in a different way, they might be better than last year."
Weber details Wisconsin's style.
"They're very physical. Their defense is definitely their staple; they don't give you open looks. They run their system on the offensive end, and they guard and try to find weaknesses. They make it hard. You've got to earn things and probe their defense. You can't shoot the ball quick. It helps to shoot the ball well from three against them to spread them out a little bit because they do stay packed.
"It's unbelievable how they take care of the basketball. They're averaging less than 10 turnovers a game, two the other night against Minnesota. They don't beat themselves, they find ways to grind it out.
"If they get a lead, it's very hard to play against them because they don't turn it over. They take pretty good shots, and they don't give you any easy baskets. That's why they've had success since Bo's been there, especially on the road."
Senior power forward Jon Leuer (6'-10", 228) and junior point guard Jordan Taylor (6'-1", 195) are the primary weapons for UW. Leuer leads the team with a 19.8 scoring average. He is hitting 50% or better both from near the basket and the three point line. He also pulls down 7.3 boards a game and has 21 blocks on the young season.
Mike Tisdale played with Leuer this summer in USA ball.
"He's good obviously. He's versatile. He can shoot outside, he can move. He's no easy matchup for anybody. It's gonna be important to shut him down."
Bill Cole also praises the tall Badger.
"He's one of the best players in the Big 10 and in the country too. Everyone knows how good he is. He does a lot of things on the floor, so we're gonna have to be locked in and shut him down."
Weber is still haunted by Leuer's play last season at the Assembly Hall.
"Leuer has very good numbers and has played well. He didn't play the first game last year when we beat them up there. He just destroyed us at our place. I thought Mike Davis did a solid job on him in the Big 10 Tournament."
Davis knows his defense will be needed again Sunday.
"He's a great player. He's inside out; he can shoot a three, he can post near the basket. He's tough to guard. Last year in the tournament I stopped him, and that's why we won the game. I have to come with the mentality to stop him. If we stop him, we have a good chance to win the game."
Taylor averages 15.4 points a game, shooting .452 from the field including .412 from the arc. He also pulls down 4.3 rebounds a game and has handed out 57 assists. He is coming into his own now that he has point guard duties to himself according to Weber.
"Jordan Taylor had to share the limelight last year, but the ball is in his hands this year and he's making plays. People have called him the best point guard in the league. He's got some good numbers to back that up. It's a challenge for D.J. (Richardson) on defense.
Richardson is preparing hard for the confrontation.
"They do a good job of recruiting good guards. Jordan Taylor is one of the best point guards in the country this year. We have to contain him and limit his points and assists. Hopefully I do a good job on him and get the victory.
"He has a bigger role this year. He has to be a point guard, score and get assists as well. He's pretty strong, and he's got the team on his back."
Weber appreciates how well Ryan can get tremendous play out of a bevy of role players.
"The other guys, he just seems to find players to come in and be system guys, do what they need to, make the open shots."
The other three starters are likely to be senior center Keaton Nankivil (6'-8", 240), averaging 7.6 points a game on .536 shooting from the field plus 4.6 boards a game; freshman Josh Gasser (6'-3", 185), averaging 6.7 and 3.9 on points and rebounds; and sophomore Mike Bruesewitz (6'-6", 220), also a 50% shooter in limited opportunities.
Other Wisconsin players expected to see time include sophomore Jared Berggren (6'-10", 235), sophomore Ryan Evans (6'-6", 210), senior Tim Jarmusz (6'-6", 205), junior Rob Wilson (6'-4", 198), and senior Brett Valentyn (6'-4", 195).
Illinois has had recent success at the Kohl center, UW's home, but defending the home court against them has been problematic according to Weber.
"We've got a difficult game. We're three out of five at their place, and they've won three out of four at our place. So in this series, being at home doesn't always mean you will have the advantage."
Still, the key for the Illini is to defend their home turf.
"It's one of the things we've talked about since the beginning of the year," Weber reminds. "One of our goals is not just anticipating you will win at home just because you're at home.
"When we go on the road, you have that fear factor, that nervousness, the bubbles in the stomach. You're a little more intense, so you've got to keep that in mind with opponents. At home, you almost have to be MORE ready to play and fight off that team that has the fear factor. They're just trying to survive being on the road."
Illini players have heard that mantra repeatedly.
"That's one of the things we talked about before the season started, defending the Assembly Hall," Cole relates. "We used a road dog mentality on the road to get a win, and now we have a defending-the-home-court mentality. We're gonna have to play our butts off against them and see what happens."
Davis shares similar sentiments.
"It's very important, it's our home court. We have to win at home to have a chance to win the Big 10. We're one up on the road, now we've got to protect the home court."
The Illini didn't always do that last year, and it hurt them both in the conference and in their unfulfilled quest for an NCAA tournament berth. Weber hopes his team has learned from previous mistakes.
"Hopefully we've learned our lesson. We've had a perfect slate in the nonconference. That's one of our emphases as we continue in the league. It's not gonna be easy.
"Basically, every league champion over the last 8-9 years goes undefeated or has no more than one loss at home. The one exception was Michigan State a couple years ago. They lost two at home, but they won every road game and ended up winning the league going away.
"Protecting the home court is very important for competing for a league title."