PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Wisconsin

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' matchup with No. 10 Wisconsin on Tuesday night.

Illinois (13-9, 3-6) vs.

No. 10 Wisconsin (18-3, 7-1)

Date & Time: Jan. 31, 8 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: ESPN2

Quick Hits

  • Illinois will face their first top-10 opponent of the season, and they're 0-4 against top-25 teams.
  • The Illini have lost their last eight against ranked opponents in regular season play.
  • John Groce is 10-31 against teams in the top-25 while at Illinois.
  • Illinois is 0-7 against Wisconsin during Groce's tenure.
  • The Illini have lost 10 straight overall in the series, and they're 4-17 against the Badgers since 2007.
  • Illinois last beat Wisconsin on Jan. 2, 2011 in Champaign 69-61.
  • Wisconsin has won five straight games, and they're tied with Maryland atop the Big Ten standings.
  • The Badgers survived a scare against Rutgers on Saturday with a 61-54 win in overtime.
  • Wisconsin is a 6.5-point favorite according to Vegas, as of Monday.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas had four points, three assists and one turnover in his second start of the season on Saturday. Both of his buckets came in the second half and he also had three steals. But he was just 2-of-8 from the field and 0-of-3 from deep.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands scored 13 second-half points, including three treys, which was a big part of Illinois' comeback effort at Penn State. He also had seven rebounds on the game. Coleman-Lands is shooting 44.4 percent from deep in Big Ten play, but his overall production has been streaky.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill scored a game-high 19 points to go with seven assists and six rebounds on Saturday. He had six assists in the second half alone. Hill is the Big Ten's active leading scorer with 1,628 points.

Leron Black (R-SO): Black was Hill's trusty sidekick in nonconference play, but in the Big Ten, he has failed to be consistently productive. He had four points and five rebounds at Penn State. But he played only five minutes in the second half and rattled off three fouls.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan posted 10 points in 22 minutes at Penn State, as he hit four of his seven shots. But he only had one rebound and turned it over twice. He is averaging 12 points and 3.4 rebounds per game in Big Ten play.

Bench

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke played the most minutes off the bench, and he produced five points and seven rebounds in 17 minutes. He was just 2-of-6 from the field. Finke is shooting 60 percent in Big Ten play overall, though, and 54.2 percent from three.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols provided a spark in the second half with eight points and five rebounds. And he was rewarded by playing 14 second-half minutes, which was only topped by Hill. Production will get you playing time.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams has not been productive. He had seven points on nine shots against Iowa. But he followed that up with just two points and one assist in 15 minutes at Penn State. He was 1-of-5 from the field, which puts him at 23.3 percent in Big Ten games this season.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate had three assists and a turnover in 15 minutes on Saturday. He's played at least 15 minutes in each of the last three games, which most Illinois fans will say is too much. But Illinois' "depth" hasn't really helped that cause.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne had two points and two rebounds in 11 minutes at Penn State. That's four games in a row with double-digit minutes. But Thorne is averaging just 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds per game in Big Ten play. And he probably shouldn't play 10-plus minutes against Wisconsin's mobile frontcourt.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan didn't play at Penn State. He didn't play against Iowa in the previous game. The sophomore guard is 1-of-7 from the field in 48 minutes combined in seven appearances against Big Ten teams this season.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams didn't play on Saturday. He played three minutes at Michigan on Jan. 21. That's the only action he has seen in the last six games.

Wisconsin Starters

Bronson Koenig (SR): Koenig is averaging 14 points per game in Big Ten play this season, while shooting 50 percent from beyond the arc. He's hit more threes than anyone in the conference in league games this season. Koenig splashed five threes in wins against Indiana and Ohio State earlier this month. He has a knack for hitting big shots down the stretch as well.

Zak Showalter (R-SR): Showalter gives the Badgers a solid role player, who can get the job done in multiple facets. He is averaging 8.4 points, 2.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game in the Big Ten. He'll play sound defense, he can get to the bucket and he's capable of hitting the three.

Vitto Brown (SR): Brown is inconsistent as a scorer, as he's shooting 38.6 percent from the field in league play. He had 16 points against Penn State last week but followed that up with an 0-of-8 showing against Rutgers. Brown has been consistently good on the glass, though, with at least five boards in six of the Badgers' eight Big Ten games.

Nigel Hayes (SR): The Preseason Big Ten Player of the Year is averaging 13.1 points and 5.8 rebounds per game on the season, while shooting 45.7 percent from the field. Hayes also leads the Badgers with 3.2 assists per game. Hayes had seven points, 11 rebounds and four assists on Saturday against Rutgers. His scoring numbers are slightly down this year, but he has been a more efficient player.

Ethan Happ (R-SO): If not for 'Biggie' Swanigan at Purdue, Happ would be the best player in the conference right now. He is averaging 17.1 points and 8.1 rebounds in Big Ten play, while shooting 51.9 percent from the field. Happ carried the Badgers on his back on Saturday with 32 of his team's 61 points. He is lethal with his footwork and variety of moves around the basket.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Emotion. Publicly, Groce and his team have said this is just another game. That's fine. But they better fight like this means a little more than that. Groce should coach like this game means a little more than that. In reality, the season is on the line. Groce's job is on the line. It's real. Backs against the wall on the verge of what looks like being knocked out. You've lost four of your last five. You lack big wins on your resume. Here is the biggest opportunity to get back in the fight. What are you made of? From one end of the bench down to the other, along with the five guys on the court. Illinois should come out with a ridiculous amount of effort. An inspired performance. Groce constantly says 'control what you can control'. Well, you can control your disposition, your mindset and how you approach this game.

2. Execution. Wisconsin is and has been a team that doesn't make very many mistakes. They have an experienced nucleus. They play disciplined basketball. The Badgers are the best in the league in turnover margin. They're 23rd in the nation in offensive efficiency. They're ninth in the country in defensive efficiency. They execute in all aspects of the game. Illinois has been inconsistent with execution. They've made too many mistakes, whether that be defensive mishaps, turnovers or bad shots. Wisconsin will eat up opportunities for open shots. They move the ball with purpose and flow. Offensively, the Badgers aren't going to hand you baskets. Plain and simple, Illinois cannot afford to be sloppy. Too many lapses, especially defensively, will bury the Illini.

3. Everything Illinois has. Everything. Illinois was in a similar position during Groce's first year. His veteran team was on a slide. They lost seven of their first nine games in Big Ten play. Then, No. 1 Indiana strolled into the building. The Illini had the chance to start rollin' or keep foldin'. Groce's team played with a toughness and a swagger that night. Seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey scored 58 of the team's 74 points. They won the game. Still the signature game of Groce's tenure. Flash forward four years. Illinois has lost six of their first nine in Big Ten play. In walks a top-10 team. The season is on the ropes. How do you respond?

Prediction

Halfway through the Big Ten schedule, this Illini team seems pretty predictable. And so does the end result. Rutgers almost beat Wisconsin on Saturday. So yes, anything is possible in this league. But Illinois doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence with how they've performed. They'll have to prove otherwise.

No. 10 Wisconsin 72, Illinois 58


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