Although the makeup of the Fighting Illini is certainly different from the team that beat Wisconsin three times last season and made it to the national championship game, Illinois continues to thrive under third-year coach Bruce Weber. Through Weber's first two-and-a-half seasons at Illinois, the Illini boast an 82-11 record.
What is impressive about Illinois' 19 wins this season is the fact that the team had to replace its top two scorers from last year's squad, guards Luther Head and Deron Williams, who were selected in the NBA Draft.
Without them however, Illinois has hardly missed a beat this season, winning 15 of 19 games by double figures. The Illini are leading the Big Ten and ranked 10th in the nation in scoring margin at +15.7 points per game. According to UW assistant coach Gary Close, Illinois is just as fundamentally sound and dangerous as a season ago.
"They're very well coached [and] they don't make a lot of mistakes," Close said. "They are very fundamentally sound. They play pretty fast but it's not like they turn the ball over or make wild shots. They're a disciplined, talented team. In some cases, they plug in different guys and run pretty much the same stuff but, with the combination of talent, [it] makes you a pretty good team."
Although Wisconsin's Kammron Taylor and Alando Tucker are the highest scoring duo in the Big Ten (38.4 points per game), one of the most feared 1-2 punches in the nation consists of Illinois seniors Dee Brown and James Augustine.
Since transitioning from the wing to become Illinois' primary ball handler, Brown has continued to mature and is averaging close to 17 points per game. What is more impressive is that Brown is finding ways to create scoring chances for his teammates and not turn the ball over. This season, Brown ranks second in the Big Ten in assists per game, averaging 5.9 per contest. And over his last 14 games, he has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.94.
What makes Augustine impressive is his accurate shooting percentage and his ability to rebound on both the offensive and defensive glass. Shooting better than 60 percent and grabbing nine rebounds per game this year, Augustine has already broken the school record for career boards, a mark previously held by Illinois legend Efrem Winters. If Augustine stays on pace, he will become the first 1,000-point scorer and rebounder in Illinois history.
"[Brown and Augustine] are both smart, unselfish players," Close said. "Augustine does a phenomenal job of getting other people involved, whether setting a ball screen or down screens. In doing so, he gets the defense in a tough [position] to where he now can get open, whether it's slipping to the rim or jumping out. He's a classic example of an offense player that, in being unselfish, gets himself open."
"Brown is [second] in the league in assists," Close said. "People think about him as a great 3-point shooter, which he is, and a great penetrator, but he will give the ball up. It started last year in terms of them being unselfish and they are doing the same thing this year. That is all due to good coaching as well as good kids and that's what makes them a hard team to play."
Although Head and Williams took some of the scoring and leadership away from the Illini, Illinois' strength this season is the contribution and depth of its bench, which sees nine players playing more than 10 minutes a game.
One of the players who has best taken advantage of his playing time is sharp-shooting freshman guard Jamar Smith, who leads the Big Ten in 3-point field goal percentage (53 percent). Additionally, junior guard Rich McBride has stepped in nicely. In seven Big Ten games, McBride is averaging 8.6 points per game while shooting 37 percent from the floor. Much like the Badgers this season, the boost from Illinois' bench is what makes them click.
"They may not be quite as overpowering offensively, just because they had so many weapons last year," Close said. "They aren't as experienced as they were last year, but they are deeper."
The Badgers received some good news Monday, in that Taylor and top reserves Michael Flowers and Joe Krabbenhoft all practiced, and are expected to play Tuesday. That trio took part in limited practice Sunday after suffering minor injuries in UW's loss at Michigan Saturday.
With UW's bench shortened, freshman walk-on Kevin Gullikson stepped up into a bigger role. This may continue whether or not any of the above trio proves to be limited Tuesday.
On Saturday, Gullikson saw the most extensive playing time of his young career, playing 20 minutes, scoring four points, grabbing two rebounds and committing no turnovers. For Gullikson, it's an opportunity to show that he belongs amongst the giants of the Big Ten.
"It's an opportunity," Gullikson said. "I just got to do what I know I can do, step in and try to contribute whatever I can to this team."
"It probably shocked him," said Tucker, in regard to Gullikson's playing time. "Every team goes threw adversity and, at this point, we got to find a way to beat it. That's what we're doing right now. The good thing is we're still in a race for first. We have to look more at the positives than the negatives."
Although Wisconsin has been dominant at home in five seasons under coach Bo Ryan, this game is far from a guarantee, as demonstrated by Wisconsin's shocking loss at home to North Dakota State. According to Close, Wisconsin will have to play a perfect game and not rely on their home-court edge if they plan on remaining in first place in the Big Ten.
"I don't think it is an advantage playing [Illinois] at home," Close said. "I think it's an advantage [somewhat], but Brown and Augustine have been in about every place they are going to play. I don't think we can go out and play just OK and, because we are playing at home, we'll [win]. I think we'll have to play them really well to win. If we can play well and with the crowd, that obviously gives us a better chance."
Who: No. 6 Illinois (19-2 overall, 5-2 Big Ten) at Wisconsin (15-5, 5-2).
When: Tuesday, Jan. 31 at 6 p.m. Central
Site: Kohl Center (17,142), Madison, Wis.
Broadcasts: Televised live on ESPN. Broadcasts live on Wisconsin Radio Network.
Series notes: Illinois leads the all-time series 105-68… Wisconsin holds a 50-37 advantage in games played in Madison. Illinois defeated Wisconsin three times last year, including handing the Badgers their only Big Ten home loss under Bo Ryan and snapping Wisconsin's 38-game home winning streak.