As it turns out, though, the Badgers have had trouble defending the painted rectangle on the court. Wisconsin got 26 points in the lane and Iowa scored 36. Both of those games ended in the Badgers favor, but perhaps the Wildcats and Hawkeyes exposed a weakness.
This from our friend Brian Becker at BadgerNation.com:
"Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes have to do a better job. Kaminsky has improved his defense from a year ago but at times needs to be a more aggressive down low. Although Hayes has been stepping his game up over the last four contests, he still needs some work to do defensively. He still needs to learn how to move his feet properly so he doesn't pick up fouls that can be prevented."
Of course, post production isn't exactly Illinois' thing. Nnanna Egwu is averaging 7.9 points per game, but his looks have increasingly been from further and further from the basket. Forward Jon Ekey feasts on the perimeter and putbacks. So, it's not like the Illini are going to provide a traditional low block offense to attack the Badgers.
Instead, will Egwu (who can shoot. Don't shudder every time he pulls) and Ekey continue to stretch the floor and allow Rayvonte Rice, Tracy Abrams and Joe Bertrand to explode toward the rim? Yes. That's their game. Maybe that trio can draw Kaminsky and Hayes into foul trouble. And if not, Egwu and Ekey have to take advantage when the Badgers help by making open looks.
What I want to see… Egwu stay out of foul trouble. This Wisconsin team currently has an elite look on offense. I can rattle the numbers (Big Ten games only) -- first in the conference in efficiency, second in turnover %, third in effective field goal %. You get it.
But for every great offense, there's a great defense out there. Illinois plays great defense. Sometimes, Illinois is elite defensively. The Illini are currently first in these conference defensive categories: turnover %, steal %, assists to field goals made %. And they're second in efficiency (91.2) and two point field goal % (34.7).
Anyway… let's not get bogged down in the numbers when our eyes are already telling us -- this is a classic "can we outscore you, can we stop you" battle.
Of course, Wisconsin plays good defense, too. That's why the Badgers are No. 4 in the nation.
As far as the Illini are concerned defensively, they're much better when Nnanna Egwu is on the floor. In order to be out there, he can't get into foul trouble.
He's been doing a better job of balancing his aggression and making his fouls count. But this game is going to offer a different type of challenge. Kaminsky can deck it and drive it the basket. Hell, all of those guys up there can, for that matter. Egwu won't be able to camp near the basket and simply defend entry passes by fronting his man and wait to help on would-be drivers. Kaminsky can hit 3s and that's going to pull Egwu out of his comfort zone.
He's got to move his feet and keep his hands off Kaminsky when he drives. Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert bring five fouls apiece and hustle to the court. But they're not Egwu. He can't be sitting on the bench for long stretches if Illini is going to win.
Illinois will win if… The Illini defend, keep the Badgers off the offensive glass and Rayvonte Rice plays like a star and Abrams fills his stat sheet.
Sounds simple, right? It won't be. But the Illini have enough perimeter defenders to keep Wisconsin off the 3-point line. How Coach John Groce decides to defend Sam Dekker will be the interesting match-up to watch. The guards have to limit penetration because this isn't a game where the big men can help as much. Dekker and Kaminsky can make you pay from the perimeter. Rice, Abrams and Bertrand are good enough to limit these things.
And I'll keep this short… You guys know what Rice and Abrams do. Rice needs to drive the bucket and put up his 20-something points. Abrams needs to chip in at least a dozen and round out his stat sheet with rebounds, assists and minimal turnovers. This is their team. These are the type of games where they have to lead.
Score prediction… Wisconsin wins 68-60. This Badgers team is really, really good and off to the best start in over 100 years. We can talk about NCAA Tournament flameouts later, but this is the regular season and a home game in the Kohl Center, always a tough place to get a win. Too much Dekker and too much scoring depth, I'm taking the Badgers by eight.