The Wisconsin Badgers are accustomed to winning. After two straight 30 win seasons, six losses in a row is a humbling experience. On the down side, it can destroy confidence and trust. But on the upside, it can bring teams with good chemistry and good coaching together to fight through the problems and get back on a winning track.
Illinois coach Bruce Weber knows he has a fight on his hands Thursday evening in Madison.
"I think they're a wounded Badger. If you know anything about badgers, they are really mean and dangerous. I've seen them."
The Badgers boast two of the league's best players in point guard Trevon Hughes and power forward Marcus Landry. And Joe Krabbenhoff is one of the most versatile performers in the league and is a defensive stopper.
Their main problem has been at the center spot as Keaton Nankivil, Jon Leuer and assorted other reserves haven't compensated for the graduated Brian Butch. And normally good shooting guard Jason Bohannon, who was unstoppable in Champaign in 2008, hasn't been playing as well as expected.
But Weber reminds that coach Bo Ryan has established a system that can weather the storms and find success.
"Bo is Bo, and their style remains fairly constant. Since I've been back in the league, the one thing he's been able to do is keep his system constant. They've added some ball screens and different things every year depending on who they have. But their defense stays solid, their offense stays patient. They make you defend to the shot clock and look for somebody to break down.
"For the most part, I think we did a good job the first time staying solid on defense. You've got to match them at what they do. They try not to give you easy baskets, while on the other end they try to get the easy baskets. Obviously, they've been very successful since he's been there."
Weber knows the Illini must establish themselves early against a team in the midst of a losing streak. If you let Wisconsin get its confidence up, it can forget the losses quickly and play quality basketball.
"The big key will be early in the game. We've got to be aggressive and take it to them. You wonder how they're gonna be, but we have to worry about ourselves. We have to play a good basketball game no matter what up there. It was a hard fought game here, really down to the wire. They don't go down easy, and I'm sure they won't go down easy Thursday night."
Actually, Illinois had what appeared to be a comfortable lead in their first game and then seemed to lose focus. Wisconsin never gave up and made a game of it at the end.
"In the first game, once we got up 15, we got a little bit stagnant. It's that fine line. You want to be patient, but you still have to attack. I didn't think we did very good. We would get late in the shot clock but didn't get much out of it. It allowed them to get their heads up.
"They made a couple shots down the stretch. Then they pressed us. I think they were smart because our guys thought they were gonna foul. So we just kind of caught the ball and covered up, waiting for a foul. Trent gets a travel, Chester gets a jump ball, we turn it over one time, and all of a sudden they come back. A 10-11 point lead is down to 5 or under. We've got to finish the games."
Illinois players know this game will be difficult. Senior Calvin Brock has been a part of Illinois basketball for five seasons, and he is the voice of experience on playing the Badgers in the Kohl Center.
"Their record might not show it right now, but they're a real good team. They stay within their system, nobody takes bad shots. And they're gonna make you play defense for 30 seconds. If somebody on the defensive end collapses, they're gonna get an easy basket. It's gonna be a tough battle.
"It's definitely a tough place to play. We've only won one or two times in my five years, so we want to go up there and get another victory. They're gonna be fired up. It's gonna be 40 minutes of war."
Sophomore Mike Tisdale has only played there once, but he needs no more convincing.
"A team like that's hard to play. Any time you get your backs up against a wall, you're more ready to fight to get a win. And especially with them at home, they're not used to losing up there. It's gonna be a battle. I think if we go up there focused and ready to play, we can give them a run."
Sophomore guard Demetri McCamey also realizes the difficulty of the assignment and will need to carry out the game plan for Illinois to win.
"They play us tough, and they're at home. They don't lose that many home games, so we'll have to come in and be tough, be well-rounded and make shots.
"They play like Iowa, Michigan State and Minnesota. They're not gonna pressure you a whole bunch in the backcourt, but they're gonna pack it in to make sure you don't get in the paint. They're gonna make you live by the three or die by the three. We've got to get penetration and kick out to Trent (Meacham), Tisdale and Mike Davis for open jumpshots, and we'll be successful."
Streaks often end after six straight. Purdue lost at Ohio State Tuesday after six straight wins, as one of numerous examples. Illinois will have to have a peak performance to overcome the odds.