PREVIEW: Illinois vs Wisconsin

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois vs. Wisconsin on Sunday at the State Farm Center.

Illinois (10-11, 2-6) vs.

Wisconsin (12-9, 4-4)

Date & Time: Jan. 31, 6:30 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Wisconsin has won three Big Ten games in a row after starting 1-4 in conference play.
  • Two of the Badgers' last three wins have come against top-25 teams (Michigan State & Indiana).
  • Wisconsin's trio of Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Ethan Happ have scored more than 62 percent of the team's points.
  • Illinois is 110-82 all-time against Wisconsin, but the Badgers have won the last eight meetings.
  • The Illini are 0-5 against Wisconsin under head coach John Groce - losing by an average of more than 17 points per game.
  • Illinois' last win against Wisconsin came on Jan. 2, 2011 in Champaign (69-61).
  • The Illini are 4-11 in their last 15 games against Big Ten opponents.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate had two points, three assists and one turnover in 29 minutes against Ohio State on Thursday. The junior point guard has taken care of the ball, but he's had just four games this season in which he's scored two buckets.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands made big shots down the stretch on Thursday night to help the Illini send it into overtime. He finished with 11 points and six rebounds, while hitting three triples.

Kendrick Nunn (JR): Nunn was Illinois' lone consistent offensive threat against Ohio State, as he scored 13 of the team's 24 points in the first half. Nunn had 24 points in the game, while going 7-of-15 from the field.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Hill wishes he had that possession back at the end of regulation on Thursday, as his three-pointer was blocked with a chance to win the game. Hill had an off-game against the Buckeyes - going 3-of-14 from the field.

Michael Finke (R-FR): After an impressive performance at Minnesota, Finke didn't have a great showing against Ohio State. He finished with six points, but he was just 2-of-8 from the field and had only two rebounds.

Bench

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan had eight points and five rebounds in 30 minutes on Thursday. But he didn't do enough on the glass, and he was just 2-of-6 from the free-throw line.

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis didn't attempt a shot against the Buckeyes, as he finished with no points, two rebounds and one assist. Illinois' lack of a scoring threat at the point guard position has certainly been a burden.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan missed the only shot he took on Thursday night. He was scoreless in just four minutes of action.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin played three minutes against Ohio State, and registered just one foul on the stat sheet.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams saw two minutes of action on Thursday night. He didn't play in the previous game at Minnesota.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne has missed back-to-back games after making his return against Indiana. The big man was on the practice court on Saturday, and he could potentially play some minutes against the Badgers.

Wisconsin Starters

Bronson Koenig (JR): Koenig is averaging 13.5 points and 2.2 assists per game this season. But he hasn't been particularly efficient with his stroke recently. Koenig had four points, no assists and three turnovers against Indiana on Tuesday, while going just 1-of-9 from the field.

Zak Showalter (R-JR): Showalter has gone from playing less than seven minutes per game last season to 32 minutes per game this year. He is averaging 7.5 points and four rebounds per game, while shooting 36.1 percent from deep.

Vitto Brown (JR): Brown had nine points and three rebounds against Indiana on Tuesday. He is averaging 8.4 points and 5.2 rebounds per game, but he's shooting just 38.4 percent from the field.

Nigel Hayes (JR): Hayes has played some of his best basketball of late. He had 31 points and five rebounds against the Hoosiers, while going 17-of-22 from the free-throw line. Hayes is No. 5 in the Big Ten with 17 points per game.

Ethan Happ (R-FR): The Illinois native is having a very impressive debut season. Happ has scored in double figures in seven straight Big Ten games, and he's totaled at least eight rebounds in six of those contests. He is coming off a career-high 25 points against Indiana.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Defend the interior. Thursday night was a harsh reminder of Illinois' weakness on the inside. Ohio State won the points in the paint battle 28-to-12, and they also dominated the offensive glass in the first half. Wisconsin doesn't have the same length as the Buckeyes, but their bigs are skilled and even more of a threat to score. Happ took Indiana freshman Thomas Bryant to school on Tuesday with a variety of beautiful post moves. Meanwhile, Hayes is playing like a first-team All-Big Ten selection. He presents a big challenge with his ability to catch in the mid-range and take it to the hoop or pull up for a jumper. Hayes is a strong finisher and he had his way with Indiana's interior. The Illini could very well see the same.

2. Run smart offense. The Illini offense has hit frequent rough patches, and a big part of that has been due to poor ball movement and shot selection. They don't run very many sets, which gives players more freedom but that isn't always necessarily a good thing. The Illini have a tendency to settle for jump shots early in the shot clock. Illinois came out hot against Ohio State, and they were moving it pretty well at the beginning. But other times, there is just pure isolation without ball reversals or drive-and-kick. The Illini also need to be smarter with their attempts from three. On Thursday, more than 52 percent of their shots from the field were from three - and they only hit 31 percent. It would help to have a point guard who could create and make his own shot. But the Illini don't have that luxury. They still need to figure it out by playing within the offense but still being aggressive.

3. Keep fighting. The game against Ohio State was not pretty by any means. But Groce said he was pleased with his team's effort and grit. The Illini managed to come back after being down by 13 with less than seven minutes to play. That is a sign of a team that didn't quit. But they still took it on the chin by falling short in the end. Groce said on Saturday that his guys have to forget last game when they take the floor against the Badgers. It's been a tough ride for the players, coaches and fans to this point. But the Illini still have the ability to win some games and improve overall. It's important that the team remains bought in with what Groce is preaching. 

Prediction

Like Illinois, the Badgers took five losses in the nonconference and started Big Ten play 1-4. Both teams rely heavily on their stars to lead the way. But Wisconsin is starting to figure things out under Greg Gard. This is still a winnable game for the Illini, and being at home certainly helps. But the safe bet is on Wisconsin to keep it rolling. Hayes and Happ will be too much for the Illini bigs to handle.

Wisconsin 68, Illinois 62


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