Was the middle of the Iowa game an illusion or the harbinger of things to come for the Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team? If they return to the court tonight filled with the intensity they displayed for quite a bit of their last game, the Illini will have a great shot at ending this 7 game losing streak because Wisconsin comes in as a shell of the dominant force that began the current Illini slide back on January 8th.
At that time the Badgers were undefeated, sitting at 15-0 and checking in at #4 in the nation, but that’s not who these Badgers are right now. They have lost 5 of their last 6, and 3 of those losses have come on their home floor. With the losses coming fast and furious will the Badgers be totally focused on the Illini tonight, or will Illinois have a chance to sneak up on them while they might be looking ahead to their showdown with Michigan State?
If I was betting, I’d put my money down on Wisconsin showing up to the State Farm Center tonight with 100% focus because quite simply, they can’t afford another loss. So, let’s get down to it and see who has been playing hot despite all the losses lately for the Wisconsin Badgers.
Sam Dekker comes in to this game as Wisconsin’s leading scorer (13.5 ppg), and he has hit double digits in 7 of 9 Big Ten games. That said, he only played 19 minutes against Ohio State in his last game out and only managed to score 4 points in the process. In their previous match-up, he torched Illinois for 17 points on 6-8 shooting.
The sophomore made some waves back on January 30th following a home loss to Northwestern when he told the Journal Sentinel, “We’re being soft. We’re being unaggressive. We’re being the team that’s lacking in all the categories that you need to win.”
Senior Guard Ben Brust has been even hotter than Dekker during Big Ten play. He is currently Wisconsin’s second leading scorer (13.2 ppg), and he has registered double digits in every Big Ten game but one. He comes in to this game on a run of 3 straight double digit performances, including a season high 21 against Northwestern two games ago.
One final Badger to watch out for tonight is 6’7″ Freshman Nigel Hayes. He burst on to the scene against Ohio State and registered 17 points, 5 rebounds, 1 assist, and 1 block. Thankfully, he did it the game before Illinois so he can’t sneak up on the Illini tonight.
So, if three guys are hitting, who isn’t?
Frank Kaminsky (12.9 ppg) and Traevon Jackson (10.8 ppg) round out the Badgers who average double digits in scoring, but those two have been fairly cool during the Badgers recent slide. Kaminsky hung 15 on Illinois last time out, as did Jackson, but each player has been held to single digits in their last two games, and each has posted 16.7% shooting performance from the floor recently.
Three Things I’d like to see tonight:
1. Smothering Defense – It’s highly likely the House of Paign is going to be fairly quiet tonight thanks to the Snowmageddon that’s currently ongoing outside right now. Without a huge crowd to feed off of, the Illini defense needs to get amped up on their own and locking down defensively early should be their prime objective.
2. Play Urgent – The time has come to start treating every game like it’s an elimination game. There is literally no room for error if the Illini want to taste post-season play. Act like it. Play like it.
3. Identify who’s hot and ride them regardless of age – In the Iowa game it was clear that Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn came to play. Unfortunately, they both found themselves riding the pine when the game was being decided. I’m not saying they need to play regardless. What I am saying is that the coaching staff needs to identify who is playing with the most urgency and playing the best regardless of age, and then make sure those guys are in the game when it matters most.
When: Tuesday, February 4, 2014, 8:00 PM CST
Where: State Farm Center – Champaign, IL
TV: BTN (Directv 610 / DISH Network 439)
Announcers: Dave Revsine (Play by Play) and Shon Morris (Analyst)
Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with me in the comments section below with any observations you may have!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.