However, they will be doing so as significant underdogs. Currently, Wisconsin is listed as a 13.5 point favorite heading into the game, and to make things even more difficult, Wisconsin has traditionally been nearly unbeatable at the Kohl center.
As a matter of fact, Wisconsin has been more or less unbeatable this entire season with the exception of two games which couldn't have come against more unlike opponents. The Badgers lost to then #4 Duke in early December in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge by a score of 80-70.
The other blemish on the Badgers' record? An inexplicable five-point loss on the road at Rutgers in which they shot only 5-21 (23.8%) from 3PT and went only 9-16 (56.3%) from the free throw line.
On the season, the Badgers are a 76% team from the free throw line and shoot slightly better from 3PT at 35.6%. However, what really makes Wisconsin a tough matchup is their combination of offensive efficiency (points per possession) and scoring defense.
Defensively, the Badgers are allowing the 9th fewest points of any team in the nation, and that is due in large part to long possessions and ball control offense.
At the center of it all, both figuratively and literally, is likely All-American and senior center Frank Kaminsky, a native of Lisle, IL. Kaminsky, who decided to return to Wisconsin for his senior season, has been sensational this year, leading the Badgers in scoring (17.3 PPG), rebounding (8.3 PPG), and of the healthy players on the roster, leads in assists (2.5 APG).
Kaminsky is quite literally a do-it-all player for the Badgers. And Nnanna Egwu, arguably Illinois' most vital defensive player, will have his hands full. But Kaminsky and Egwu have gone against each other for years, dating all the way back to their AAU days with the Illinois Wolves.
Statistically, Egwu has not been as impressive as Kaminsky by any means. Egwu averages 7.0 PPG, 5.8 RPG, but also records an average of 1.8 blocks per game, which helped lead him to the all-time record for blocks at Illinois.
And while the matchup between Kaminsky and Egwu will be crucial, the Illini might actually need to worry more about sophomore Nigel Hayes. Hayes is an exceptionally smart player who averages upwards of 12 points and 6 rebounds per game. More impressive is that Hayes shoots nearly 53% from the field.
Hayes was a thorn in the Illini's side last season, too, combining for a total of 25 points and 9 boards as a true freshman against Illinois in 2 matchups last season. A year more experienced and more confident, Hayes will present a tough matchup for Illinois.
Throw in the fact that Sam Dekker is playing some of his best basketball now for Wisconsin, and the three-headed monster for Wisconsin will be tough to combat. Will the Illini meet their first roadblock in some time?
Fortunately for Illinois, Rayvonte Rice is back. Despite struggling offensively, Rice came up big for Illinois late in the second half and in overtime in the team's win over Michigan, specifically on the defensive end. Illinois missed his power and rebounding during his time away from the court.
In his absence, sophomore Malcolm Hill has emerged as a serious player for the Illini, now averaging 14.6 points per game, including an average of 18 PPG during Illinois' 4-game win streak.
Illinois will also need a big game from another sophomore in Kendrick Nunn, who has been the hot hand the last three games. With marks of 21, 14, and 21 points in each of the last three games respectively, Nunn may be one of the few Illini who can exploit a matchup advantage and provide a scoring boost.
Keys To The Game:
- Wisconsin is not a powerhouse rebounding team, but as efficient as the Badgers are on offense, Illinois will need to limit the number of offensive rebounds, and subsequently second-chance points, Wisconsin is able to pull in. Chances are if Wisconsin doesn't make you pay on the first try, they will on the second.
- Smart shot selection will be crucial for Illinois. Every offensive possession is valuable with the way Wisconsin tries to control the time of possession, so the Illini need to make sure they don't settle for quick or forced shots.
- Clog the middle: With Wisconsin not being an especially good outside shooting team, I would expect to see a lot of zone defense in an attempt to maintain a presence in the lane. Playing man-to-man defense, especially against a team like Wisconsin that works heavily out of the high post, leads to open back-door cuts and easy layups.
- Take care of the basketball: Illinois has been doing a solid job of limiting turnovers in their wins this season. As a team, Illinois averages 13 assists per game to 10 turnovers per game, but Wisconsin is even more efficient, averaging 13 assists to just 8 turnovers per game. Illinois averages 6 steals per game to Wisconsin's 5 per game.
- While this isn't a make-or-break game for the Illini's tournament resume, keeping this one close will help their case on Selection Sunday. A win on the road against the #5 team in the nation, though, would be a signature win for a team seeking to book their ticket to the big dance.