The battle for Big Ten supremacy is on the line tonight at the Kohl Center in Madison as the No. 24 Badgers host the No. 14 Illinois Fighting Illini. As the 2002-2003 regular season reaches its final few games, the confusion that was the Big Ten this season will finally be cleared.
It's plain and simple: If the Badgers win, they are the outright champions, whereas if Illinois pulls off the daunting task of winning on the road, they guarantee themselves at least a share of the Big Ten title.
After starting the conference campaign 0-2, Coach Bo Ryan's squad has won 11 of its last 13 and is now sitting atop the Big Ten with an 11-4 record and a 21-6 overall standing. Stifling defense and precision offense is the name of the game for the Badgers as they are the Big Ten's best in scoring defense (57.7) and the conference leader in turnover margin (+2.93).
The Badgers are coming off an impressive road victory at Minnesota Sunday afternoon, in which they defeated the Gophers 69-61 in front of a packed house at Williams Arena.
Leading the way for the Badgers were senior guard Kirk Penney and freshman forward Alando Tucker with 16 points, along with sophomore forward Mike Wilkinson's nine rebounds. But the key statistic in this game was the free throw differential, as UW made 18-of-21 charity shots and Minnesota made one of only five attempts.
Coach Bill Self's Fighting Illini are the final test for the Badgers, before postseason play, and are looking to notch their third straight Big Ten title. Illinois (10-4 Big Ten, 20-5 Overall) is seeking its fifth conference victory in a row, coming off an impressive road victory over the Michigan Wolverines on March 1. Leading the way for Illinois, as he has all year, was senior forward and leading Big Ten Player of the Year candidate, Brian Cook. Cook tallied 26 points, seven rebounds and five assists in the victory as Illinois committed only seven turnovers and forced 13 from Michigan.
Tonight's showdown is the second meeting between the teams this season. Illinois won the first meeting January 11 on its home floor in Champaign, 69-63. Cook led the Illini with 31 points in that game, while Penney was the Badgers' leading scorer with 18. Tonight will also be the final home game for senior Kirk Penney, the last remaining member of UW's 2000 Final Four team.
With the title on the line, the question is which UW team and which Illinois squad will show up. Both teams have shown vulnerability on the road and both are undefeated on their home turf this season. But nothing is a given in the Big Ten.
THREE KEYS FOR WISCONSIN
1. Free Throws - UW established last weekend at Minnesota how dominant it can be when it comes to getting to the foul line and preventing the opponent from getting the free-throw advantage in a given game. This season, the Badgers have nailed 59 more free throws than their opponents have even attempted!
2. Not so foul - The Badgers will need a strong advantage in the free throw department to defeat the Fighting Illini, but more importantly, they'll need to stay out of foul trouble and prevent from giving Illinois "free" shots. UW is tops in the nation with an average of only 14.9 personal fouls per game.
3. Sixth Man - As close as these two teams are, it is more evident than ever, that it's the intangibles that will really play an important factor in the outcome of this game. The home crowd, specifically The Grateful Red, will be rocking the Kohl Center for their Badgers in order to help urge them on to their 16th straight home victory.
THREE KEYS FOR ILLINOIS
1. Pass the Rock - The Big Ten's best in assists per game, Illinois is averaging 18.2 assists per contest. As long as they spread the wealth, it can only help their chances of stealing a victory on the road.
2. Shot selection - Illinois has the best field goal percentage in the Big Ten with 48.9 percent (followed closely by UW with 47.1). The Illini's proficient passing style and offensive scheme will be needed, to work through, around, and over the dominating Badger defense.
3. Phreshman Phenom - Illinois presents one of the best freshman guards in not only the Big Ten, but the entire nation, Dee Brown. Brown runs the Illini offense with great skill as he scores, passes, defends, and most importantly, doesn't turn the ball over, as evidenced by his 12.1 points, 4.8 assists and 2.53 assist/turnover ratio per game.
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