Pregame blog: Illinois vs. Wisconsin

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper is getting you set for Illinois' battle with Wisconsin on Sunday night at the State Farm Center.

15 minutes until tipoff

Just walked past Lucas. He is excited to be back in Champaign again. You can find him sitting in the front row of the recruit/family section wearing orange and sporting an Illini hat.

While Groce and his staff haven't beaten the Badgers, they got a major win up in Wisconsin by landing Lucas. There was a rather eventful chain of events that led to Lucas committing and signing with Illinois. He really impressed on the AAU circuit in July, as high-major programs definitely took note. The Illini got him to take an unofficial visit in August and they extended an offer his way.

Ultimately, Lucas chose Illinois over USC and Old Dominion. But that doesn't tell the whole story when it comes to the amount of programs that wanted him and how fortunate the Illini are to end up with him. Lucas was a back-up plan for Michigan, who was ready to take him after taking their best shot at Cassius Winston, who committed to Michigan State. But the spot in Ann Arbor was taken by Illini target Xavier Simpson after his dad essentially recruited Michigan to start recruiting his son.

The Simpson family will even tell you - they were planning to commit to Illinois had Michigan not come along. After that, Lucas and Charlie Moore were the options remaining for the Illini in their point guard chase. They could have waited around for Moore, but instead they put the press on Lucas and locked up one of the most underrated pickups in the class.

Other schools wanted Lucas to wait it out. A source told IlliniInquirer.com back in the fall that Butler, Cal, Texas and Wisconsin were among the programs that were coming after Lucas and wanted him to stay open in his recruitment. The Illini are happy that neither side decided to delay. They got a Big Ten quality point guard who was known as one of the best distributors in the country back in July, and he is showing that he can score for himself as well.

Lucas' arrival next year is certainly a selling point for Groce when the time comes to talk about his job security. Lucas signed his letter of intent, which is binding to the school and not a coach. But many players are able to get released when the head coach is fired or goes elsewhere.

30 minutes until tipoff

Now, let's talk about the last time the Illini defeated the Badgers. It was more than five years ago - Jan. 2, 2011 to be exact. Illinois came away with a 69-61 win in Champaign.

What was the key factor in that victory? The Illini had a point guard, and a pretty darn good one in Demetri McCamey. The senior outplayed Jordan Taylor on the other side, as McCamey scored a game-high 21 points with seven assists.

Here's a depressing stat for you. The last time Illinois' starting point guard scored that many points against a Big Ten opponent was the 2014 Big Ten tourney. Tracy Abrams scored 25 points in a win over Indiana. How about the last Illini starting point guard to score 20-plus against a Big Ten opponent in the regular season? That would be McCamey, who did it three times in 2011.

Between this season and last season, the Illini have gotten an average of 5.1 points per game from the starting point guard in 27 games against Big Ten teams. McCamey scored 14.2 points per game against Big Ten teams in 2011. Illini fans may have given him more due credit if they would have known what the future held.

Luckily, Groce and his staff are excited about the future of that position when Te'Jon Lucas arrives on campus next season. The 2016 four-star point guard is here at the State Farm Center today to see his future school take on his home-state program. Lucas is averaging 18 points and eight assists per game for Milwaukee Washington. He had 19 points against Simeon last night at Whitney Young High School. Illini assistant Paris Parham was in attendance, and so was former Illini great Dee Brown.

A little more on Lucas and how he ended up with the Illini coming...

50 minutes until tipoff

The Illini will be sporting the gray uniforms today. Fun stat: They are 1-0 wearing them this season and 2-2 during Groce's tenure.

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Let's get back to talking about the "House of Paign". It hasn't really been that for Big Ten opponents - at least not at the level of the past. Groce is 16-15 against Big Ten opponents at the State Farm Center. A loss today would put him at .500, which wouldn't be a great look. I did some research on Illinois coaches' success in Champaign against Big Ten teams.

John Groce: 16-15 (.516)

1-3
7-2
3-6
5-4

Bruce Weber: 54-22 (.710)

5-4
7-2
5-4
7-2
2-6
6-2
7-1
8-0
7-1

Bill Self: 22-1 (.956)

7-0
7-1
8-0

Lon Kruger: 22-11 (.667)

7-1
1-7
7-1
7-2

The Illini were 51-4 in Big Ten games at what was known as the Assembly Hall between 2000-06. That seems like a long time ago. They have done a great job with making this place look good. The students are closer to the court. It is more friendly for recruits. But the Illini have to make it a place that opponents fear again.

60 minutes until tipoff

A few Big Ten programs have given the Illini problems during Groce's tenure. Ohio State is one of them, and the Buckeyes won their sixth straight game against the Groce-led Illini on Thursday. Playing Michigan has not been good for the Illini either. But Wisconsin is the one Big Ten foe that Illinois has not beaten under Groce (0-5). Here is a look at Groce's record against each Big Ten program.

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Wisconsin has won eight straight against the Illini in this series. Former Badgers head coach Bo Ryan was 19-11 in 30 games against Illinois during his 14 full seasons at the helm. When was the last time the Illini played Wisconsin without Ryan on the sideline? That would be Feb. 13, 2001. Illinois came away with a 68-67 win against interim head coach Brad Soderberg. Wisconsin head coach Dick Bennett retired two games into that season after taking his team to the Final Four the previous year.

That isn't too far off from Ryan's situation this year. The Illini hope that means a home win for them today. I'll have more coming up on the "House of Paign" shortly.

90 minutes until tipoff

Let's take a second to talk about the most ferocious dunker that wears the orange and blue. And I'm not talking about anyone that wears a uniform. If you get to the arena early enough, you know who I'm talking about. That would be head strength and conditioning coach Adam Fletcher.

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A former college basketball player at Miami (OH), Fletcher is in his first season as the S&C coach at Illinois. He certainly looks the part. In fact, he looks like the type of guy the Illini need on the court. As a senior at Miami (OH), Fletcher was listed at 6-foot-9, 241 pounds. He is a physical specimen.

While the current focus is each game this season, John Groce and his staff are excited to see what Fletcher can do this offseason to physically maximize this roster. Groce said on Saturday that he makes sure to have his team lift twice a week during the season to maintain strength. But the lifting is nothing like the kind that will take place after the season comes to an end.

Many Illinois fans have been impressed with the body transformation that Michael Finke during his redshirt year and this past offseason. Fletcher took the position in August, so he hasn't been given a full year with him and others yet. But you can bet the staff is expecting big things. Illini assistant Dustin Ford told me recently that Finke will be a significantly different player after a full offseason with Fletcher in the weight room. They hope that he can get Maverick Morgan to pack on some muscle as well.

Fletcher did a great job to get Mike Thorne Jr. ready before the season started. While the season is going on, he still has an effect.

"He's very intelligent when it comes to sleep, nutrition, flexibility - all those things that go into building a complete player," Groce said of Fletcher on Saturday.

"He's a competitor. The guys know he is a killer in terms of his mindset and attitude towards things."

2 hours until tipoff

Greetings from the State Farm Center. Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper here getting you set for Illinois (10-11, 2-6) vs. Wisconsin (12-9, 4-4) at 6:30 p.m. CT.

The Illini are trying to rebound (literally and figuratively) from an overtime loss to Ohio State on Thursday night. Illinois came back from a 13-point deficit with less than seven minutes to go, as Jalen Coleman-Lands tied it at 58 with less than a minute remaining. But the Illini couldn't fully seize the opportunity, and they fell short 68-63 to dip below .500 in the overall standings. Wisconsin is also coming off an overtime battle. They took down No. 19 Indiana on Tuesday night 82-79 at the Kohl Center.

These two teams followed a similar path for the first two months of the season. Both finished nonconference play with five losses, and they started 1-4 in Big Ten play as well. The major difference is how the Badgers are playing right now. They have reeled off three wins in a row, and two of those came against ranked teams (Michigan State & Indiana). As for the series between Illinois and Wisconsin, the Badgers have won the last eight meetings.

You can read everything you need to know about this matchup in my preview HERE. Stay tuned for much more pregame coverage.


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