Wisconsin 63, Illinois 55
CHAMPAIGN - Michael Finke clutched his left knee, in obvious pain, after trying to take a charge with 7:18 remaining in Sunday's loss to Wisconsin. The State Farm Center fell dead quiet, like it was mourning the funeral of this long, lamentable Illinois basketball season.
If Illinois fans couldn't imagine it getting any worse, well, it just did.
Finke limped off the court with a knee injury, which Groce called a contusion following the game. Finke will have an MRI on Monday. To make matters worse, he was called for the foul with 7:18 remaining. Add insult to injury.
That moment encapsulates the Illini season. The Illini, down nine at home to a middle-tier Big Ten team -- though a hot one -- with another key contributor suffering an injury. Oh, and Kendrick Nunn also suffered a hip pointer during the game.
They'd already lost their starting point guard Tracy Abrams (Achilles). Freshmen Aaron Jordan and Jalen Coleman-Lands each lost significant offseason time due to lower leg injuries. They've lost their two best rebounders and interior threats -- Leron Black (meniscus) and Mike Thorne Jr. (mensicus) -- during the nonconference season.
What else could go wrong this season? In this season, the Illini -- and their fans -- are conditioned to fear the worst.
On Sunday, two teams that started the season 9-9 and 1-4 in Big Ten play continued to head in opposite directions.
Wisconsin (13-9, 5-4 Big Ten) won its fourth straight on the season and ninth straight over Illinois. The Badgers, under interim head coach Greg Gard, now are on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Meanwhile, Illinois (10-12, 2-7 Big Ten) lost its fourth of five confence home games as its program battles for relevancy in Year Four under head coach John Groce -- maybe the most snake-bitten coach in the country -- who is now 0-6 against the Badgers.
The Badgers had five players finish with eight-plus points, led by Nigel Hayes (17 points) and Khalil Iverson (10 points). Wisconsin out-rebounded Illinois 37-25 and outscored Illinois in the paint 22-8.
Malcolm Hill led the Illini with 22 points, while Kendrick Nunn added 15.
The Illini shot 36 percent from the field: 12-for-36 (33.3 percent) from two and 6-for-14 (42.9 percent) from three.
Jalen Coleman-Lands did not start and did not play until 8:51 left in the first half.
What it means
The Illini continue to establish themselves as bottom feeders in the Big Ten. And Finke's injury, depending on the severity, could further cement them near the bottom. They don't protect home court against mediocre Big Ten teams, and the home win over Purdue looks more and more like an anomaly. Despite another energetic, hungry crowd, home-court advantage appears dead for the Illini. Groce is now 16-16 at home during Big Ten play and this team likely will finish under-.500 at home during conference play this season. But you have to feel for Groce and this team. It's Murphy's Law when it comes to injuries.
What went right
Aaron Jordan had one of his best games as an Illini. He was active on defense and on the glass, and he even showed some aggression going to the hoop with a tip-in and a runner.
The Illini hung around, thanks to Hill, Nunn and solid defense. Hill and Nunn need help. They showed some grit following Finke's injury, which Groce loves, but still did not execute well enough to win a close game over a beatable team.
What went wrong
The Illini were again dominated in the post and inside the arc in every possible way.
Illinois was unable to take advantage of foul trouble for two of Wisconsin's three best players in the first half. Koenig played just 11 minutes and Happ played just six minutes.
Injury aside, Finke continues to struggle against bigger Big Ten teams. He was amazingly efficient during nonconference play, shooting 58.1 percent from two and 38.4 percent from three. During Big Ten play, he is shooting close to 40 percent from two and 33 percent from three. With his inefficient play, the Illini lack a reliable third scorer.
Jalen Coleman-Lands could be that third scorer, but he played like a freshman on Sunday. He forced two quick jumpers when the Illini needed to work to find a good shot.
The Illini defense allowed just 10 points in the first quarter of the game but the defense let up as Wisconsin finished the second half making 9 of 12 field goals.
No Illini had more than four rebounds.
The Illini's lack of a point guard continues to kill them. Khalid Lewis and Jaylon Tate combined to go 0-for-5 from the field with four assists and one turnover.
Star of the game
Khalil Iverson: The Badgers freshman came off the bench to give Wisconsin energy and some needed points with Koenig and Hayes on the bench.
The Illini head to Rutgers on Wednesday for their most winnable road game of the conference season. Even though Minnesota (6-16, 0-10 Big Ten) also is winless in the Big Ten, the Scarlet Knights (6-15, 0-8) are the worst team in the conference. The Gophers (No. 185 in the KenPom rankings) have been competitive lately. Rutgers (No. 274 in the KenPom rankings) has not been, getting outscored by an average of 23.6 points per game during Big Ten play. The Scarlet Knights rank last in the Big Ten in both offensive and defensive efficiency. The Illini have few given wins during conference play. Even though they're on the road, Wednesday is a must-win -- just to avoid embarrassment. Can the Illini actually make it a confidence-gainer though?