Illinois plays at Kohl Fieldhouse Saturday. The Wisconsin Badgers have lost only six games in that gymnasium. Even though the Illini have won three of those including last season, the Illini can expect a difficult struggle.
As has happened far too often the last few years, the Illini must find the strength and confidence to put their frustrations of losing at Penn State behind them to play well enough to win against a talented team. They must heal the wounds and move on.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber wishes he had an anecdote for the lethargy his team experienced in Happy Valley Tuesday.
"Obviously I'm disappointed. We went through that last year when we didn't have any seniors that were major factors on your team. We hoped that we would learn from that. We have four seniors that went through some of that stuff a year ago.
"You hear football players talk all the time about why they got out of the game. It was not the game itself, the game itself is easy. It's the preparation, it's the time, it's the practice, studying the film, all that stuff.
"They (PSU) had just beaten Michigan State, so it was not out of the realm that they beat us. But you were hoping we would play a little better and not have it come down to that. I hope somewhere here, before it's too late, we get better on preparation with our guys approaching every game and not just the big ones."
After shooting 64% in winning it's first three Big 10 games, the Illini perhaps expected their good fortune to continue. When things weren't going smoothly, Weber felt his team was impatient to find its groove. This led to more mistakes and missed shots. It became a vicious cycle.
There will always be games where you have to grind out wins. Right now, the Illini depend heavily on senior point guard Demetri McCamey to make the tough plays and shoot the clutch shots at the end of close games. When he lacks energy like Tuesday, Weber has no one else to take on the pressure and respond constructively.
"In the close games, we've got to find somebody besides Demetri to make a play. We had some open shots, but we just couldn't get a run. It seemed like every time we were on the verge, we'd have an open shot and wouldn't make it. They didn't score a field goal from 12 to 6 minutes (second half), but we just couldn't get over the hump. You go back to UIC, it was the same thing.
"We have to find ways to score at the end of games. Somebody besides Demetri, and something besides a ball screen. It's a key as you go on."
Senior center Mike Tisdale wishes he understood and had a solution to why the Illini lack energy some games.
"If I could explain it, it wouldn't happen. I don't know what it is. It's just something that's there. Hopefully we can get it changed by the next game."
Penn State was a beatable foe, and its crowd was small and quiet. Whether that contributed remains to be seen, but Tisdale admits his team fires up more for tough opponents and big crowds.
"It seems like when there's a lot of energy in the building and big crowd, we play better. We've got to learn to play without that."
Weber says his team needs somebody besides McCamey to step up and supply the energy and enthusiasm when things aren't going well or when McCamey is struggling.
"The two losses to UIC and Penn State, he didn't have the motor, he didn't have the energy that he's had in a lot of the other games. The thing we had in '03, '04, and '05, Dee (Brown) brought it to the table 19 out of 20 days. The 20th day, we were so fortunate we still had Deron (Williams) and Luther (Head) who were bringing it.
"If we had one other guy. I think Tisdale made an effort to bring it the other night, but he's not the point guard. He's not the energy guy that can dictate it. If we can get somebody else to do it and ease the pressure on him, it would help.
"It's the same thing at the end of the game. If somebody else can make a play or even create to get it to Demetri, it sure would be nice."
The Illini do have confidence they can hold their own in Madison. They won there last year, so they know it is possible according to Weber.
"Last year Demetri was special, Tisdale was special. You've got to have a great effort and have somebody be special at their place to have a chance to win."
Wisconsin is a tough out anywhere. It lost at Michigan State earlier this week and at Illinois last week, so it will be eager to balance the ledger. It has quality players and a style that works.
Junior point guard Jordan Taylor is D.J. Richardson's assignment again this game. Taylor's amazing 3.9:1 assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the best in the country. Richardson says he has his work cut out for him.
"He's a good player, one of the best point guards in the country. He rarely turns the ball over, and he gets the offense started. I have to stay solid and try to force him into a bad game. Don't let him get into the paint, don't let him do damage. Don't let him get assists, make him take tough shots. That's the best way to stop him."
Tall Jon Leuer is their scoring leader, and the Illini will again have difficulty guarding him as he is adept both inside and on the perimeter. But doubling up on him defensively is tough, especially on the inside because he will hit an open teammate. 6'-8" Keaton Nankivil has benefitted from that strategy and will be Tisdale's primary responsibility. He shoots over 50% from the field, mostly from long range.
"He plays good," Tisdale says. "He always makes shots. He's definitely a great shooter, and he's been tough against us. He's made threes against us, so hopefully we can modify our defense to try to shut him down."
The Badgers move the ball on offense, using the shot clock and controlling tempo. If they are hitting their shots late in the shot clock they are especially tough to beat. Tisdale reminds you don't want to give them second chances as they will make you guard longer than you prefer.
"It is tough. That's one of their things, they run the clock down. Playing defense, you definitely want to give them one shot and get the rebound. You don't want to guard for another 30 seconds.
"When they're making shots, it's that much tougher. They really set the tempo of the game. You go through all this, you're running around, and then they make a shot. That sucks."
Richardson explains the Illini held a team meeting the day after the Penn State loss.
"Coach Weber was on the road recruiting, so he wasn't able to get to the meeting. All the assistant coaches besides Coach Weber were in there. We had a chance to talk about stuff, what we need to improve on as a team."
What did the team learn from the meeting?
"Just coming out fired up. We came out and kind of got big-headed. We'd played good for three games and then dropped into a hole. We've got to stay up and keep a winning streak going.
"It helps a lot. Everyone knows how you're feeling at the moment, how you take the loss. I think everyone took it kind of tough. We can't think about the loss. We've got to come out tough in this game."
Just like after the UIC loss, thoughts of a sparkling season turn quickly into concerns about a possible losing streak. In this case, the Illini host highly rated Michigan State and dominant Ohio State after the Wisconsin game. If the Illini want to reach their goals, these games are extremely important according to Weber.
"All of them are gonna be hard. You're gonna have to play your butts off. Wisconsin on the road, we just beat them, they're coming off a disappointing loss. It'll be interesting how both teams react. To win at Madison, you've got to play special."