A few bad losses during the season have put Illinois behind the eight ball as the post season nears. On the NCAA bubble with numerous other quality teams, the Illini need every win they can muster. Wisconsin is the last game of the regular season, and they are the repeat opponent in the first round of the Big 10 Tournament. As a top 20 team, the Badgers will be a tough obstacle.
"Everybody knows it's an important game," Illinois coach Bruce Weber states. "I don't know if one game makes or breaks your season, but we put ourselves in a challenging situation where this game becomes very important. It would give us 11 wins in the league and another win against a top 20 team.
"And you don't want to downplay it's our last home game, and it's Senior Day also. I know the three seniors Dominique Keller, Richard Semrau and Bubba Chisholm aren't maybe the mainstays of our program, but they've all contributed and are positive influences on our team. It would be nice to honor them with a great performance on Sunday."
Weber thanked the NCAA and ESPN for coming to their senses and moving the game from 11:00am to 1:00pm. It is hoped the later starting time will help the crowd get there on time and be awake and energized to be the Illini's 6th man. After all, they need all the help they can get to accomplish their goals against an outstanding team.
"If anything, we need a sense of urgency," Weber reminds. "When you look back on our season, when we get down by 23 or 19 or 15 or 13, all the different comebacks we've had, it seems we play at a higher level. So maybe if we have a sense of urgency, it will help us."
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan has a system that has proven effective year after year. The Illini pulled off a stunning upset in Madison earlier, but the Badgers were playing without star 6'-11" forward Jon Leuer. They are at full strength now, and Weber has great respect for them.
"The thing you always say about Bo's teams is they're always consistent. They play very well at home, and we were able to find a way to beat them there. We're the only team to beat them.
"I would think that probably doesn't sit very well with them, and I'm sure they'll come back with a little vengence to get after us and see if they can get a victory at our spot. I think they're still fighting for seeding. And they could move up in the standings. So there's something on the line for them.
"Bo's teams always seem to come to play. You're gonna have to deal with their system. You've got to be consistent, you've got to have mental toughness. Our big theme this week is being prepared. If you're prepared, it should take care of some of the stress level."
The Wisconsin defense is fundamentally sound, making it difficult to run offense consistently according to Weber. Of course, it would help if the Illini could overcome their recent shooting woes and hit buckets at the same rate they did in Badgerland.
"Their system is so solid. They play a pack, they don't give you any easy shots. They really limit your inside touches, your layups because they always are packed in there. They seem to never foul. Coaches around the league may quietly have some feelings about that. But they get big, they get their hands up, and they don't give you those free throws or easy baskets.
"If you make some shots, you spread them out. Now you can get some drives to the basket. Demetri (McCamey) did a great job first game in the ball screen stuff, when to get it to Tis (Mike Tisdale), when to go to the basket, when to pull up. If we're gonna win, we're gonna have to have some guys play special. It would really help if Demetri did."
Offensively, senior guards Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon are playing their best basketball. Jordan Taylor has added additional scoring punch from the wing, and center Keaton Nankivil made 7 of 8 threes one game. But adding Leuer, scoring 14.6 points a game both inside and outside, has given opponents even more defensive headaches. Weber says the Illini defensive approach will stay the same.
"I don't think it will change your approach, we're just gonna have another good player to guard. He goes 8 for 9 the other day, so maybe he's starting to get his timing, get some of the rust off, catch up conditioning-wise.
"He's a player that's versatile. He can go inside a little bit, but he's actually shooting better from three than he is from two. So he can spread the defense. You've already got to worry about Bohannon and Hughes, and now you've got another perimeter guy who can shoot the ball. He doesn't shoot as many (threes), but he makes for a tough matchup.
"Sizewise, our big guys are a good matchup for him. He'll put it on the floor, but not like a Lighty (David, Ohio State) would. He's solid with that, but he doesn't have near the quickness or athleticism that Lighty has."
Illinois may be at less than 100% as big center Mike Tisdale has been struggling lately with a leg problem according to Weber.
"He has tendonitis in his Achilles. There is no damage, it's just an inflammation of the side of the Achilles. It started last Friday before the Minnesota game. He did struggle a little bit in the Minnesota game. It really flared up after the game and the next morning.
"We kept him out Sunday. He did practice a little Monday. With therapy, massage and everything they were able to get him through the (OSU) game. It flared up again on Wednesday.
"We put him back in the boot, kept him off of it Wednesday and Thursday. Hopefully we'll use him a little bit Friday and Saturday to keep it loose and flexible. They think he'll be okay for the game.
"Ideally with tendonitis you need rest. Right now we don't have long periods of rest. With his frail body, staying out of practice a couple days might actually help give him a little more bounce."
Tisdale says that besides the boot, he has applied ice to the swelling and used anti-inflammatories. He says he's had previous issues with his Achilles tendon.
"It feels all right now. In high school, I had problems with it when I was a sophomore and did the same exact thing. When you put a lot of stress on it, it starts to get sore. But it heals pretty quickly."
Tisdale believes the Illini can pull off the upset.
"We're at home, so there shouldn't be a sense of being too tight. We've got to know it's all-or-nothing for this game. We also have to realize we have to play good basketball. We have to go out there and play our best. It's not gonna be easy, but I feel confident that if we do what we're supposed to do, we can get a win."
Junior co-captain Bill Cole sounds an optimistic tone as well. The Illini are a laid-back team. He believes they won't let the pressure of the game make them play tight.
"I think we'll be okay. Everyone has played in big games at some point in their lives. This is probably one of the biggest for it can get us into the tournament, a win over a top team like Wisconsin. We've just got to stay focused and prepare as well as we can.
"They always have a lot of weapons. Now that Leuer's back, it solidifies their lineup. He gives them another option in the post. He gives them a big presence down low, so we're gonna have to adapt to that."
Cole says a key is to play tight defense for the entire shot clock to counter UW's tendency to run down the clock. Patience is key.
"Definitely. They take about 25 seconds at least every time. So you've got to make sure you rebound or you're gonna have to play a lot more defense than usual. They basically just try to grind you down and impose their will on you."
McCamey, who seems calmer and more mature with each passing week, expands on what the Illini need to do to win.
"It's real big. It's for post season, but you don't want anybody coming in on your home court and win. We've already had a couple losses this season that had our fans upset, so win for the seniors on Senior Day. Make them happy on their last home game.
"We have to play smart. I think with Leuer back, the bigs are gonna be out on the perimeter more. We've got to contest the threes and rebound.
"Even when Leuer wasn't there we had to guard everybody because they run Swing and post their guards. They try to kill you in every way, so we've got to be real cut in, get the crowd into it and try to get some runouts and deflections. We've got to make shots as well. We've got to have everything clicking on Sunday."
Keller is more focused on the importance of the game than the conclusion of his college career.
"Wisconsin is top 15 in the nation right now. We kind of let one of our home games go last week with Minnesota we feel like we should have won. So this game is big in terms of us getting into the NCAA tournament and getting some momentum going into the Big 10 tournament.
"We're definitely urgent right now. We know this is coming to the end. Every game counts from here on out. We need all these games to get to the tournament."
Weber has worked all season to get more out of his team, and improvements have been made slowly but surely. Regardless of preparations this week, most of the work is already done. How well the players take their training to heart will determine their destiny according to Weber.
"All I can ask the guys is to play with a great deal of energy and get after them. See what happens."