Of underdogs and streaks

Wisconsin and Illinois each have impressive numbers on the line Tuesday

MADISON – Leading up to tonight's showdown at the Kohl Center here, the No. 18 University of Wisconsin men's basketball team and top-ranked Illinois have been playing tug of war over the underdog label.

"I think we're pretty good but they're pretty good and if you look at it no one has beat them," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "A Big Ten team has not been them at home since Bo's been there. They have 38 in a row. If I looked at it I would say we're the underdogs until somebody starts beating them at their place, they've got to be the favorite."

As Weber alluded to Wisconsin (4-1 Big Ten, 13-3 overall) owns the nation's longest home winning streak at 38 games. In Bo Ryan's fourth year as head coach the Badgers are a perfect 26-0 in Big Ten home games and 53-2 in home games overall. The only losses? A 90-80 defeat to Wake Forest on Dec. 4, 2002 and a 70-67 double overtime loss to Temple on Dec. 3, 2001.

Illinois, however, is riding some impressive streaks of its own. The Illini have opened the season 19-0 and are 5-0 in the Big Ten, earning the No. 1 ranking in the nation for eight consecutive weeks.

"For them to say they're the underdog the way they've been playing it's hard to believe from my standpoint," UW senior forward Mike Wilkinson said.

Illinois has won 15 consecutive Big Ten regular season games and 29 consecutive regular season games overall. The Illini have also tied a school record with eight consecutive Big Ten road victories.

All of those streaks, by the way, began after Wisconsin drilled the Illini at the Kohl Center, 76-56, on Jan. 24, 2004.

"I'm hoping our guys will have a little extra motivation, a little bit of fear factor," Weber said. "A little bit different than maybe some of the games we've played this year where we kind of have the target on our back and we're the team that's supposed to win."

The Illini want that to play like that target is on Wisconsin's back, thus dimming the spotlight on their own streaks.

"Even the other night we win at home against Iowa, a top 25 team and we didn't play good and people are like, ‘What's wrong with you guys, you're slipping,'" Weber said.

"It's just a little different mindset," Weber explained. "To beat [Wisconsin] there you have to play good, disciplined, consistent basketball and you have to play for 40 minutes as Michigan State found out a couple weeks ago."

Wisconsin's players and coaches insist they never think about their home winning streak; they only think about the next game.

"Every time someone says ‘the streak' the first thing that comes to mind is the media," Wilkinson said. "We never talk about it."

Wilkinson's strongest memory of the Kohl Center leading up to this Illinois game occurred just over a week ago, when the Badgers trailed Michigan State 59-51 before rattling off an 11-0 run in the final minute and 57 seconds to win 62-59.

"Right now the last thing that sticks in my mind about here is the Michigan State game because it's the last game we played," Wilkinson said. "We need to learn from that game and the Michigan game and every game we've played this year and what we need to do better."

The Illini have memories of their own. Illinois has won 33 of its last 36 games, with two of those three losses coming at the hands of Wisconsin. After losing to the Badgers at the Kohl Center last year, the Illini beat UW at home to help secure the Big Ten regular season crown. Their 12-game winning streak, however, was snapped in a 70-53 loss to UW in the Big Ten Tournament Championship game in Indianapolis, Ind., last March.

The memory Illinois' veteran-laden group is clinging to, however, occurred March 5, 2003. In what amounted to the Big Ten regular season championship game that year, UW's Devin Harris made a free throw with 0.4 seconds left to secure a 60-59 Badger win.

"We were just fortunate to make one more play at the end of the game than they were," Wilkinson said.

"Almost all the guys they were here when they lost in the championship game, the last game of the season, on free throws with basically under a second left," Weber said. "That kind of sat in their stomach and then we went up there and just got thrashed in early January [last year] and really embarrassed and they beat us soundly in the Big Ten Tournament. I'm hoping those things will catch our kids attention and they'll realize how good you have to play to go up there and get a win."

The Illini want to be the best, establishing a Final Four or bust mentality before the season started. That and the memory of past losses at the Kohl Center – the Illini have not beat the Badgers in Madison since a 53-47 overtime win on Feb. 7, 1998 – are driving the Illini to break Wisconsin's streak.

Said Weber: "They want that opportunity, they like big challenges. It's a huge challenge. When Michigan State played them I know we played at Northwestern the day before and… I talked about the next 10 days with the kids after the games and that was coming…

"We don't have Michigan State at our place, so the more losses they get the better but also I heard a couple guys under their breath say, ‘we hope they have the streak so we have a chance to go up there and be the team that does it.'"

Wisconsin ignores the streak as much as possible. Not Illinois.

"I'm glad they are focused on that and the game and understand how big it is," Weber said. "If we did slip a little bit the last week or so maybe this will bring us back to a high level again."

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