The Illinois basketball team has the difficult task of beating a well-coached Wisconsin quintet Sunday after laying an egg in Happy Valley Thursday night. Before it can prepare for the Badgers, it must sort through its mistakes against the Nittany Lions and regain confidence prior to facing a much better opponent.
Illini coach Bruce Weber provided a post mortem for the PSU debacle.
"Obviously a very disappointing loss. Everybody asked how we would do after nine days, and we didn't do very well. I knew it would be hard to come back after a huge win. After all that time off, I didn't expect us to play as poorly as we did, which is disappointing.
"After the Ohio State game, we all hoped we had made a big step and were growing up as a team. We got to Penn State, and we played like an inexperienced team. We probably didn't have the leadership to gut it out at the end.
"Tracy (Abrams) has played very well for us, but he struggled. Joe (Bertrand) has played very well for us, but he struggled. Meyers (Lenoard) had a few moments, Brandon (Paul) had a few moments, but they had some negatives. D.J. (Richardson's) wrist, he's still trying to get his confidence back. So that's how we played."
The Badgers have a unique style that requires plenty of preparation. But the Illini didn't make it home until 3:00 am Friday morning and had classes to attend. Their only quality practice was Saturday, so it will be interesting to see if they can rise up and play good defense against a fundamentally sound opponent that controls the ball and usually hits open shots.
Jordan Taylor (6'-1", 195) is the star, although some of his numbers are down this year due to being a marked man. The senior is still averaging 13.9 points, 4.2 assists and has an outstanding assist-to-turnover ratio of nearly 3:1. As usual, the Badgers are among national leaders in fewest turnovers per game at 9, and Taylor handles the ball most of the time.
The other starters include junior center Jared Berggren (6'-10", 235), who averages 10.6 points and 5.1 rebounds while adding 23 steals on the season. He hits 36% of his three point shots. Junior Ryan Evans (6'-6", 210) is hitting nearly 10 points plus almost 7 boards per outing while hitting 44% of his three pointers.
Sophomore Josh Gasser (6'-3", 190) is the best arc shooter at 51%. He is a good all-around player for them, hitting nearly 8 points a game while contributing well on the glass and dishing out assists. And bruising junior Mike Bruesewitz (6'-6", 222) is also multifaceted.
The leading bench scorer is sophomore Ben Brust (6'-1", 190). The sophomore from Mundelein, who transferred from Iowa after the coaching change there, is a three point shooting specialist, hitting 40% while scoring just under 10 points a game. He thrives in the Badger offense.
Others who may see time against the Illini include senior Rob Wilson (6'-4", 200), soph Duje Dukan (6'-8", 205) and freshmen Frank Kaminsky (6'-11', 230) and Traevon Jackson (6'-2", 208). Dukan and Kaminsky are also Illinois products.
Weber provides a brief scouting report.
"Wisconsin is like Northwestern, it is different to go against. No other teams play like this. So for our young guys, a little bit of smoke coming out their ears. You've got to guard for long periods of time. They keep moving; as soon as you rest, they take advantage of you.
"They've struggled scoring at times. Just like everyone else in the league, if we shoot 34% we don't win. When they've struggled, they've depended a lot on threes. They don't have quite the inside threats they've had, so when they haven't shot well they've struggled.
"They went to Purdue with all the odds against them. I think Wisconsin had only won in Mackey Arena one time, and Purdue had one of the longest winning streaks at home. But they found a way to win because they shot it well.
"They're one of the best defensive teams, and they fought it out against Nebraska. And then to have that huge win against Northwestern when Northwestern was a little undermanned. Again, they made shots.
"We'll have to do a good job defending the three, defending Jordan Taylor and not letting anybody else get off. In the game against Purdue, Bruesewitz made some big threes and big rebound plays. And they're other guys stepped it up.
"I think Evans has improved as much as anybody for them. He's given them a burst of confidence, and he's allowed to do more. He has the athletic ability to rip and go, kind of a second scorer for them, somebody that can create other than Taylor. That'll probably be a big matchup for us. Obviously, Taylor will be important also."
A big part of the problem at Penn State was the point guard position. Weber hoped Sam Maniscalco could provide a few minutes of solid leadership here and there as he recovers from ankle surgery. He ended up playing 27 minutes but was no more effective than Abrams.
"I'm not going to move him back into the starting lineup. We've just got to see how the game goes. Tracy's been pretty solid for us. I wonder if Sam being back put extra pressure on him, thinking now I've got to perform better.
"Uncharacteristically, he was trying to do things he hadn't done. He turned it over, he was just going too fast. It was like a hot potato. One time on his dribble, he ran faster than the ball. They took it and went the other way. I did not expect that.
"I thought as the game went along, Sam would give us more stability. But then Sam struggled too. Probably 20 to 25 minutes is the maximum Sam can do. But you have to hope Tracy plays well enough that we can do that. If not, we have to play Brandon at the point some.
"Sam is trying to get his rhythm and timing, get his shot down and get his legs under him. We expected it to take a little bit of time. I think he tried to do too much. Be solid and get us into our stuff. Distribute to the hot guy, get it to Meyers in the post.
"A week to 10 days from now, you've got a little conditioning and are starting to get a better feel for practice. Now you maybe step it up and do other things."
Leonard has been inconsistent in the post, due in part to inadequate or infrequent passes from his teammates. It has frustrated him, which in turn has been a confidence-boost to his opponents. A lack of foul calls against overly physical opponents has played with his mind also.
"He's a marked man. He's one of the better players in the league, in the country. People have to stop him, so they're going to be physical with him. He's got to deal with that. Until they call it, he's got to deal with it. I have expressed things to the officials, but he's got to play strong.
"One thing he does, he gives in or falls down. He's got to sit in there and play strong, go to the basket. Then the officials have no choice. If you give in or run out, the officials don't have to make that call. That's part of his growing up as a post player."
Leonard elaborates on his situation.
"Sometimes I get frustrated, and I make it a little too obvious. Second half at Penn State, I thought they did a great job getting me the ball. I've just got to execute. I missed a few easy shots, ones that I would normally make.
"I know they're looking for me. Sometimes it's hard, they've got people hounding them on the perimeter, and sometimes it's just a tough angle. I have to remember to always stay positive and keep playing."
What are opponents doing to slow him down?
"They're rotating a lot of guys against me. I don't think they care about fouls, hitting me and a lot of times getting away with it. They sometimes come with double-teams and try to throw different things at me. They try to get me a little messed up. I've just got to continue to work hard and find ways to score. And get my teammates involved and open.
How important is it to control your emotions?
"It's very important. It probably does some wear and tear on the team. I've got to remain positive with them, and they are always positive with me. I know they can count on me, and I can count on them. It's got to be a team."
How does he expect Wisconsin to guard him?
"They're very physical with their lower body. They don't do a lot of fouling up top with their hands, it's a lot more straight up. But they try to ride you out by using their legs. I've got to stay strong and have a good base."
Paul has improved his scoring totals the last couple games, but he needs to develop other phases also. Excess turnovers must be eliminated. And a tendency to float on the perimeter and put up off-balance threes not part of offensive flow must be changed as well according to Weber.
"Brandon tends to stay at the top of the key. When Meyers goes out there too, we have two of our best players fooling around out there at the top of the key, and we can't have that. We have to have them both involved toward the basket if we're gonna be successful."
Paul agrees with his coach. Of course, making changes can be easier said than done.
"I think I should be a little more aggressive. I think I should come out with more of a sense of urgency, so I'm working on that. Our defensive pressure has turned up, and I think that's helped the team win games. I enjoy guarding the best player on the other team.
"I've made some shots the last few games, but I'm upset with myself for not getting to the basket more often. I feel I can get the basket and shoot more free throws."
Paul knows the Illini must play an inspired game to win.
"It's huge for us. They struggled early, but they're coming back and winning a bunch of games. They're playing well right now. They're number one in the nation for allowing defensive points. We can't take this team lightly; we have to be more prepared than we were for Penn State.
"They spread you, and they use every second of the shot clock. They've got smart players. Jordan Taylor is a good player. They're well coached, so you always have to take that into consideration."
Leonard also realizes the importance of the encounter.
"It's a big-time game for us. We've got to try to protect home court. If we follow the game plan, play hard and play like we can, I think we'll be all right."
The Big 10 is as balanced top to bottom as it has ever been. Upsets are routine. The teams with the best records at the conclusion of the conference schedule will take advantage of every opportunity and limit slip-ups according to Weber.
"That's the biggest thing, finding consistency. The goal I gave them before the season is to not lose two in a row. Don't get into a rut where you lose two or three in a row. You have such balanced teams. When you catch teams is almost as important as who you're playing. Right now, we're catching them on a high, and we're on a low. It'll be interesting how both teams respond.
"You've got to take care of your own business; everybody is fighting for their lives. No one's going to feel sorry for you, you've got to come and play."