After facing a veteran group from Michigan State and a young, athletic roster at Michigan, the 18th-ranked Badgers host the best of them all Tuesday night when No. 1 Illinois comes to the Kohl Center.
Senior Luther Head and juniors Dee Brown and Deron Williams team up to form the Fighting Illini's three-guard attack—arguably the most athletic and versatile backcourt in not only the conference, but the entire nation.
While Illinois' impressive 19-0 start to the season is courtesy of an all-around, balanced team, it is the three-headed monster of Head, Brown and Williams that separates Illinois from the rest of the competition.
"We've faced some really good guards. Some teams have had one or two, but three of this caliber. We haven't faced a group like this," UW assistant coach Gary Close said.
"It's a defensive challenge, no question. Not only do they score, but they score in different ways — from posting up to driving to 3-point shooting to transition to half court," Close added. "They move the ball really well and average over 20 assists a game which is an incredible number. They have played a lot together. This is an experienced team that has put a lot of games under their belt and it shows when they play."
With two different preseason conference player of the year recipients at his sides (Brown in 2004 and Williams this season), Head has flown under the radar this season but still remained the most consistent threat on head coach Bruce Weber's squad.
Head leads the Illini in scoring at 16.8 points per game and is shooting 52 percent from the field. The senior is also the conference leader in three pointers made (59) and averages the most number of 3-point baskets per game (3.11).
More important than the scoring however is his court leadership. Ranked third on the team in assists with 4.2 per game, Head is the team leader and second in the conference with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.72. His ability to score and lead the team is representative of his other two teammates in the backcourt as well.
Brown is second on the team with 13.3 points per game and is averaging 5.1 assists per game, while Williams is third in scoring (12.9 points per game) and leads the conference with 7.1 assists per game.
As a group, Illinois also has the best average turnover margin (+4.95) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.81) in the conference.
"It's their unselfishness. That's the trademark that they have this year," Close said. "They really move the ball well, find the open man, get the ball to the guy with the hot hand and just very, very unselfish. That's their strength."
UW senior forward Mike Wilkinson agrees that Illinois' versatility and selfless play is what really makes them tough.
"They can all bring the ball up the court. They can all make decisions," Wilkinson said. "They've all been pretty much in the offense since Coach [Bruce] Weber got there and they understand it. Every one of them is willing to take a shot, every one of them is willing to make a play. That's what makes them tough to guard."
While Illinois possesses one of the most experienced groups, Wisconsin's backcourt, on the other hand, is a young group — one that has not played many games together.
"They gel really well together. They've been playing together for the past three years," sophomore Kammron Taylor said. "They know each other's games, their tendencies and where each other is going to be on the floor. Our squad, we're pretty new with each other, but we're coming together at the right time."
Chambliss healthy, ready to go
After being limited by the flu in Wisconsin's win at Michigan Saturday night, senior point guard Sharif Chambliss will be back at full strength for UW Tuesday night.
"I'm feeling better. It was like a 24-hour bug or something, but I'm feeling better," Chambliss said. "I'll be more than ready for Tuesday."
Who: Illinois (5-0 Big Ten, 19-0 overall) at Wisconsin (4-1, 13-3)
When: 8 p.m., Tuesday, Jan. 25
Where: Kohl Center (17,142) Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: The game will be televised nationally on ESPN and can also be heard on the Wisconsin Radio Network.
Series Notes: This will be the 171st meeting between the two schools. Illinois leads the series 102-68 while UW holds a 50-36 edge in Madison.