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Of all returning Big Ten players, Wisconsin's Jon Leuer (#30), guarded by Bill Cole (#30) during a game last season, is arguably the most difficult matchup for the Illinois men's basketball team.

Fighting the Fighting Illini: Previewing the Big 10 Home Opener Vs. Wisconsin

After shooting the lights out during a Big Ten opening victory at Iowa on Wednesday night, the Illinois Fighting Illini men’s basketball team hosts the always difficult Wisconsin Badgers later today at 5 p.m.

Here’s a look at Bo Ryan’s Badgers, unranked in the AP Top 25 Poll and slotted 24th in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll.

Wisconsin Badgers Season at Glance

Wisconsin began Big Ten play on Tuesday night with an impressive 68-60 home victory against Minnesota, which had only lost to Virginia before falling to the Badgers and Michigan State last night to open the conference with an 0-2 record. Wisconsin was paced by junior and senior stars Jordan Taylor (22 points) and Jon Leuer (16).

The Badgers have won seven straight, last losing on November 28th against Notre Dame in the Old Spice Classic Championship Game. The Badgers actually led that game by double digits in the second half before Notre Dame rallied for the victory. Notable victories for Wisconsin during the seven-game winning streak include a 69-64 victory at Marquette on December 11th and a 39-point drubbing of North Carolina State on December 1st in the ACC/Big 10 Challenge.

Prior to losing to Notre Dame at the Old Spice Classic, the Badgers took care of Manhattan and Boston College in two games during which the Badgers look like quite different teams. During the ugly 50-35 victory against Manhattan, the Badgers scored just 17 points (to the Jaspers’ 10 in the first half) and shot only 36.2% from the field. Against Boston College, the Badgers utilized a 26-2 run to overcome an early 6-point deficit in the second half and win 65-55.

Before the Old Spice Classic, Wisconsin lost 68-65 at UNLV, a team coached by former Illini head coach Lon Kruger, whose Runnin’ Rebels knocked out the two-seeded Badgers in the second round of the 2007 NCAA Tournament.

The Badgers opened the season with two cupcake victories against North Dakota and Prairie View A&M.

Record: 11-2 (1-0 in the Big Ten)

Combined Record of Teams Wisconsin Has Beaten: 76-73

Combined Record of Teams Wisconsin Has Lost to: 24-4

Best Win: Minnesota (12/28/2010)

Other Impressive Wins: Marquette (12/11/2010); Boston College (11/26/2010)

Game the Badgers Would Like to Have Back: Notre Dame (11/28/2010). In the Old Spice Classic Championship game, Wisconsin led the Fighting Irish by 11 points at one point in the second half before Notre Dame scored 15 straight points in the game’s final four minutes. Wisconsin’s loss to a respectable UNLV team on the road was hardly unexpected, given the talent on the Runnin’ Rebels and the Badgers recent struggles against Nevada Las Vegas.

What I’ve Seen of the Badgers: I caught the first half of Wisconsin’s annual rivalry game against Marquette on December 11th. Wisconsin led by two points at halftime and pulled away a bit in the second half before holding onto a 5-point victory. Big men Leuer and Keaton Nankivil impressed in the first 20 minutes with their outside shooting while Taylor iced the game away with clutch free throw shooting in the final minutes. The Marquette win was a typical Bo Ryan game, with the Badgers playing solid, disciplined ball both in the Swing offense and half-court defense.

Badgers Players Familiar to Illini Fans: Clearly Wisconsin’s best player and a likely first-round NBA Draft pick in June, the senior Leuer (6-10, 228) leads the Badgers with 19.5 points and 7.5 rebounds per game. The straw that stirs the drink, the junior point guard Taylor (6-1, 195) is averaging 15.9 points, nearly 5 assists and approximately 4 rebounds in a team leading 34.2 minutes per game and provides a physical counterpart to Illinois point guard Demetri McCamey. More of an outside rather than inside-shooting big man, Nankivil is averaging 7.8 points per game but has had success against the Illini in the past.

Hair It Is: Wisconsin rounds out its starting front line of Leuer and Nankvil with sophomore Mike Bruesewitz (6-6/220), whose “bruising” name is a perfect fit for the Badgers style of play, and red afro represents the school’s colors quite well. The Badgers also utilize experienced players off the bench, including senior forward Tim Jarmusz (6-6/205), junior guard Rob Wilson (6-4/198), and redshirt sophomores Jared Berggren (6-10/235) and Ryan Evans (6-6/210), who sported a Kid-N-Play flattop last season.

Key Freshmen: When Vander Blue (a freshman guard at Marquette) backed out of a verbal commitment to the Badgers a couple of years ago, Bo Ryan replaced him with Josh Gasser (6-3/185) from Port Washington, Wisconsin. Gasser has become entrenched in the Wisconsin starting lineup, starting in 12 of 13 games, and has contributed quite well, averaging 6.3 points and 26.9 minutes per game. Other freshmen on the Badgers include Illinois products Ben Brust (6-1/190) of Mundelein and Duje Dukan (6-8/205) of Deerfield. Brust, originally an Iowa commitment who went to Wisconsin after the Hawkeyes fired Todd Lickliter, has appeared in 10 games, while Dukan, whose father Ivan is an international scout for the Chicago Bulls, has played in 5 games.

Key Injury: None. Wisconsin is relatively healthy. Interestingly enough, freshman center Evan Anderson (6-10/25) has gone the Brian Butch route and redshirted this season. Of course, Anderson was not a McDonald’s All-American like Butch.

Recognizable Departures: Wisconsin did lose 2/3 of its starting backcourt from last season to graduation in gritty point guard Trevon Hughes and sharpshooter Jason Bohannon, with both players giving the Illini fits during their stellar careers.

Recapping Wisconsin vs. Illinois Last Season: With 2009-2010 as up-and-down a season that the Illini have ever had, the Badgers represented two highlights and one major lowlight during three memorable meetings. On February 9, 2010, the Illini stunned the Badgers with a 63-56 victory at the Kohl Center, despite coming out flat in the first 10 minutes. Demetri McCamey was spectacular in the win, which was Illinois’ fifth straight at the time. Revisit the Writing Illini Tale of the Tape.

With the Illini on top of the world after the road win at Wisconsin, the second meeting between the teams was one of several low points last year. Losers of five of its last six games, Illinois badly needed a home win in the Big Ten regular season finale against Wisconsin. Unfortunately, the Illini were tight for most of the 72-57 loss on March 10th, a day that will be remembered for McCamey and Bruce Weber having a much publicized spat on the sideline in the second half. Revisit the Writing Illini Tale of the Tape.

Just five days later, the Illini and Badgers met in the Big Ten Tournament Quarterfinals. Absolutely needing a win to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive, Illinois played a great game, with Mike Tisdale stroking it from the outside, and built a double-digit lead before nearly losing this game due to taking the air out of the ball in the final minutes. At the end, Illinois would hold on to beat the Badgers but still miss out on the NCAA Tournament. Wisconsin would get a four seed and lose to Cornell in the second round. Revisit the Writing Illini Tale of the Tape.

Tonight’s Prediction: Illinois 64, Wisconsin 61

And let me say that I am hardly confident about this prediction.

Back when Illinois’ Big Ten schedule came out, I didn’t like the fact that Wisconsin was the first conference opponent that Illinois would play at home. While Weber has been successful against Ryan, the Badgers are never a comfortable or easy opponent. Wisconsin beat Illinois at home last season, and a loss to start Big Ten home play could be devastating for the Illini, which is desperately trying to reestablish home court advantage at the Assembly Hall.

Leuer is an absolute nightmare matchup for the Illini, combining a physical inside/skilled outside game that Illinois can’t guard, at least on the interior.

With that said, at the end of the day I think Illinois’ guard play is much better and will be the difference, with McCamey, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul pulling out the clutch win.

What I Would Like to See Tonight from the Illini

1. Illinois playing with much more focus and consistency throughout the 40 minutes. Lapses in judgment and intensity, as seen against Iowa, won’t get it done against the Badgers and will be a recipe for disaster. Rebounding will be huge in this game, so Illinois will need to be tough. Iowa was a much tougher team than the Illini on Wednesday night.

2. The Illini coming out physical, especially in the post. While Illinois won’t get this from Mike Tisdale, it would be nice to see Mike Davis and Jereme Richmond set this tone early, with Bill Cole and Meyers Leonard (possibly on Leuer at times) contributing off the bench.

3. A bounce back from Brandon Paul. The sophomore hasn’t had a steal in more than 5 games, and his pressure in the passing lanes could help kick start his offense, which has also stalled with the exception of the Missouri game. Illinois needs Paul to be a defensive nuisance today, to use his athleticism to create some problems for the Badgers, which aren’t as athletic in the backcourt.

4. Some aggression from Tisdale. While his head has been in the clouds during the last few weeks, Tisdale has had success against the Badgers in the past. Typically, this success has been from the outside, in the pick and pop game that Illinois became way too reliant on at the end of last season. As Tisdale will not likely do anything in the post against the physical Badgers, he should at least look for his shot this afternoon. In other words, Tisdale needs to look to have an impact rather than just float around. His ability to cover Nankivil on the outside will also be important.

5. Tyler Griffey getting more than 4 minutes. Griffey is a heady player who could stabilize/benefit the Illini against the Badgers if he gets some time. In my opinion, he is more ready than Leonard for a game against Wisconsin, though Weber will likely go to Leonard first due to his willingness to bang. With that said, Leonard will likely have a hard time staying on the floor due to foul trouble, so Griffey must not be forgotten, especially if Cole is unable to bang down low.

Alright.

Writing Illini will do a live blog of this game.

Until then.

Tags: Assembly Hall Ben Brust Bill Cole Bo Ryan Boston College Brandon Paul Bruce Weber Coppin State Crandall Head D.J. Richardson Demetri McCamey Duje Dukan Evan Anderson Illini Basketball Illinois Illinois Basketball Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball Jereme Richmond Jerrance Howard Jon Leuer Jordan Taylor Joseph Bertrand Josh Gasser Keaton Nankivil Lon Kruger Manhattan Marquette Meyers Leonard Mike Bruesewitz Mike Davis Mike Tisdale Minnesota N.C. State North Dakota Notre Dame Prairie View A&M Rob Wilson Ryan Evans South Dakota Tim Jarmusz Tyler Griffey U-of-I Basketball University Of Illinois UNLV UW-Milwaukee Virginia Wisconsin Badgers Wisconsin Badgers Basketball Wisconsin Green Bay Writing Illini

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