But are the Illini unbeatable? It certainly did not look that way for much of their game at Michigan Tuesday night, when the Wolverines spread the floor, slowed the tempo and nearly lulled Illinois into its first regular season loss in more than a year.
No, the Illini are not infallible, but they have looked very near unbeatable this season, even when they have been challenged, as they were Tuesday.
No. 20 Wisconsin (7-3 Big Ten, 16-5 overall), one of the teams to give top-ranked Illinois (10-0, 24-0) a run for its unblemished season, is back for a second helping today with a noon tip-off at Assembly Hall here.
"This is the second time we get a chance to play them," UW coach Bo Ryan said. "We've got to play better."
Both the Badgers and the Illini have looked alternately better and more vulnerable since the teams hooked up in Madison Jan. 25. Wisconsin has continued to battle through assorted illness and injury. Today, senior forward Zach Morley is a game-time decision (left leg) and redshirt freshman forward Brian Butch is out indefinitely (mononucleosis).
Illinois, meanwhile, has dealt with inconsistent offensive production and a bench that has been anything but sparkling.
What has made this Illini team so good this season, however, is that they do not need to play flawless basketball to win, or hand an opponent a sound defeat, for that matter.
Illinois beats teams with exceptional quickness and basketball skill. All five starters – guards Luther Head, Dee Brown and Deron Williams and forward James Augustine and Roger Powell – average double-figure scoring. That quintet combined for 64 of Illinois' points in its 75-65 win at the Kohl Center two-and-a-half weeks ago.
"We've seen them once," UW senior guard Clayton Hanson said. "We try to simulate it in practice but they are so talented it is hard to. They just bing-bing-bing, the ball's moving all around. Next thing you know they have an open shot."
Illinois' defense, though, is just as impressive. In conference games the Illini are allowing just 61.9 points per game and are averaging 8.5 steals per game.
"They create so many problems both on offense and defense," Hanson said. "Especially when they get out and extend and they get in the passing lanes, they can make some things happen."
Back on Jan. 25, Brown had four steals, including two thefts from UW sophomore point guard Kammron Taylor, who had three turnovers in the first half of that game.
"It was just me being careless with the ball," Taylor said. "I hadn't played against a guy like that, who had quick hands like that. I guess it could be his quickness and me being careless with the ball. I know this time that I have to be strong with the ball. I need to be strong with the ball for the rest of the season."
Taylor seems to have learned his lesson well – he has had only eight turnovers in four-and-a-half games since.
"I learned not to be so anxious," Taylor said. "I think I've been playing well since that second half of the Illinois game. I just need to calm myself down. I think I've been doing that."
In the teams' last meeting, Wisconsin had the Illini on the ropes, leading by eight with 12:40 left to play. But Illinois came storming back, claiming a 10-point victory and snapping UW's then-38-game home winning streak.
"When you can get a lead like that you have to know how to close the game out and finish," Tucker said. "That's a sign of a good team. That's one thing that they did here that we didn't do. They closed the game out. They didn't get down when we were up by eight. They stayed with their game plan."
"We had them on the ropes," Taylor said. "I think we got rattled. You can't get rattled against the No. 1 team in the country.
"I feel that we have a chance to go in there and make a good upset."
Wisconsin has as much reason as anyone to be confident against the Illini. Illinois has won 20 consecutive Big Ten regular season games and 34 consecutive regular season games overall.
All told the Illini have won 38 of their last 41 games, but two of the losses were at the hands of the Badgers. Last season UW beat Illinois 70-53 in the Big Ten Tournament Championship game in Indianapolis and topped the Illini 76-56 in Madison on Jan. 24, 2004. Illinois has not lost a conference game since.
"It's the next game. I'm always excited about that," Tucker said. "Yeah, definitely it is going to be tough. They are a great team. You always look to play competition like this. Great teams are going to be looked at around the horn. Nationally, it is going to be televised. It is a big thing."
Said Hanson: "I don't know if you need added incentive for any game to go into an opposing arena. You've just got to step your level of play up that much more. If it's the No. 1 team in the nation, or whoever it is, that doesn't really matter to us. We are just getting in there and prepare like we do for every other game, knowing what it's going to take to get out of there with a ‘W'."
What: No. 20 Wisconsin (7-3 Big Ten, 16-5 overall) at No. 1 Illinois (10-0, 24-0).
When: Saturday, Feb. 12 at noon
Where: Assembly Hall (16,500) in Champaign, Ill.
Broadcasts: The game will be televised nationally on CBS. The 46-city Wisconsin Radio Network will provide local radio broadcasts (WIBA 1310 AM/101.5 FM in Madison).
Series notes: Illinois leads the all-time series 103-68, including a 65-17 edge in Champaign… The Illini have won the last six meetings in Assembly Hall… the teams have split their last four matchups… Illinois assistant coach Tracy Webster played at Wisconsin from 1992-94 and is the Badgers' all-time leader in assists.