Wisconsin’s game with Rutgers was far from pretty Saturday, but the Badgers still managed to come out with an overtime win to keep pace with Maryland at the top of the Big Ten. Winners of five straight, the Badgers will look to continue their winning streak and try to beat Illinois for the 11th straight time tomorrow night.
While the Illini may be tied for 11th in the Big Ten and are 1-4 over their last five games, three of those games came on the road, where Illinois is winless this season. And considering Illinois is 10-2 at home this season with wins over Ohio State, Michigan and Iowa in conference play, the Badgers will need to play a much cleaner game to win again on the road.
In this Badger Nation feature, we will look at the three keys or questions for Wisconsin (18-3, 7-1 Big Ten) as they prepare to play Illinois (13-9, 3-6).
LAY UP: PROTECT THE BALL
Over its first five Big Ten games Wisconsin averaged nine turnovers and was one of the better teams in the conference in limiting mistakes. During that stretch, the Badgers only committed double-digit turnovers once, which was against Rutgers in the conference opener.
Unfortunately the mistake-free hoops the Badgers were playing have started to go away, having averaged 13 turnovers over the last three games. For the second time Rutgers got the better of Wisconsin, as the Badgers committed a Big Ten-high 15 turnovers Saturday. Even with the recent miscues the Badgers are still committing the second fewest turnovers over conference play (10.5 per game).
Illinois is only forcing 12.6 turnovers per game and 11.6 turnovers in conference play. Despite Wisconsin’s recent turnover struggles, the Badgers have prevented opposing Big Ten teams from either generating fast break points (3.5 per game) or points off turnovers (9.3 per game).
Tracy Abrams leads Illinois with 22 steals, as the Illini are averaging 4.8 steals a contest, which is tied with Ohio State for 12th over conference play. Over the last three games (Michigan, Iowa, Penn State), Illinois has averaged 6.3 steals a contest with the combination of freshman Te'Jon Lucas and Jalen Coleman-Lands being responsible for the spike in production.
Lucas - a Milwaukee native - has registered a steal in seven consecutive games and at least two in four of the last five games, while Coleman-Lands has registered a steal in four straight games and four in the last two outings. If Wisconsin can protect the ball, Illinois won’t be able to generate an extra offensive possession to give Malcolm Hill (17.5 ppg) or Maverick Morgan (10.2 ppg) a chance to capitalize.
MID-RANGE JUMPER: CAN WISCONSIN’S OFFENSE BOUNCE BACK?
Wisconsin made its fewest field goals in the first half this season against Rutgers, going 5-for-25 (20 percent) from the field. The only other time UW made single-digit first-half field goals was making eight against North Carolina in the finals of the Maui Invitational.
The good news is that Wisconsin followed up that poor shooting game by hitting 55.9 percent against Prairie View A&M, which included shooting a season-high 62.1 percent from the field in the first half. Illinois isn’t Prairie View A&M, but Illinois has allowed Big Ten teams to shoot 49.2 percent from the field. In Illinois’ six conference losses they have allowed teams to shoot 52.1 percent from the field on an average of 53.1 field goal attempts.
In order for Wisconsin to rebound offensively, the Badgers are going to need to rely on Ethan Happ to help open Wisconsin’s offense. Since conference play started Happ has led Wisconsin in scoring at 17.1 points per game, which is the sixth-best mark over conference play, and has connected on 51.9 percent of his shots from the field.
After going a combined 8-for-23 (34.7 percent) in win over Ohio State and Michigan, Happ has rebounded back to form over the last three games to show how dominant of a player he can be. Earning consecutive player of the week honors by the Big Ten, Happ has averaged 24.6 points per game and hasn’t shot worse than 55 percent overall from the field. He has been so strong that he has been able to go on individual scoring runs over the last three games, including being responsible for 15 of Wisconsin’s final 29 points of the game against Rutgers.
Happ’s ability to dominate down low has also opened up opportunities for his teammates, too, as the sophomore has shown the ability to read defenses and make the correct pass. Happ’s 2.9 assists a game is second behind Nigel Hayes (3.2 assists), and his ability to set up teammates for high-percentage looks has been critical for UW to generate offense down the stretch of games.
3-POINTER: SLOWING DOWN HILL AND MORGAN
From an offense standpoint Hill and Morgan have been two of the most consistent players for Illinois, especially Morgan. Scoring 12 points per Big Ten game, Morgan has shot over 50 percent in eight of nine conference games, giving him an impressive 58.3 percent from the field on an average of eight shot attempts.
Averaging 16.2 points in conference play, Hill has reached double figures in 16 straight games and, like Morgan, has shot the ball effectively over conference play (48 percent on 11.1 attempts). As of late, however, Hill has been able to up his shooting percentage by hitting over 50 percent three times in the last four games.
Wisconsin’s ability to slow Hill will be predicated on cutting off driving lanes, limit spacing and forcing him to settle for perimeter shots. Hill has struggled from distance, shooting just 25 percent (9-for-36) from three in conference play and 35.9 percent overall this season. The perimeter struggles aren’t limited to Hill, as Illinois ranks 13th in 3-point makes since Big Ten play started with just six per game on 32.9 percent shooting.
Hill won’t force a shot from three if it’s not there, especially since he’s capable of passing the basketball with an averaged 3.4 assists over Big Ten play. Wisconsin’s defense will need to be cognizant of where Coleman-Lands (8.7 points per game) or Michael Finke (7.3 points per game) are considering 68.9 percent and 52.9 percent of their shot selections, respectively, come from 3-point range.
With Coleman-Lands and Finke shooting a combined 39.8 percent from three on an average of 20.3 attempts, it will be important that Wisconsin’s interior defense is strong and prevents Morgan from being active around the low block. Wisconsin’s interior defense has been solid, as the Badgers have allowed an impressive 21.5 points in the paint over conference play.
With Illinois averaging 26.6 points in the paint, Wisconsin will need to find a way to limit the touches of Hill and Morgan and force their teammates to score the points, especially when one considers the duo have shot a combined 52.3 percent from the field over conference play compared to the 39.6 percent from their teammates.