Fighting Illini energized under new coach
MADISON, Wis. — When last we left the Illinois basketball program at the Kohl Center, the Illini were a beaten and dejected bunch, playing out the string for a lame-duck coach who knew the end was near. Illinois' enthusiasm certainly didn't match its talent, which included future lottery pick Meyers Leonard at center, and Wisconsin cruised to a 70-56 victory.
In the 10 months since that March game took place, much has changed at Illinois. Former Ohio coach John Groce has taken over the program from Bruce Weber, who was fired five days after the Wisconsin loss and now coaches at Kansas State. And Groce has quickly changed the culture of Illini basketball.
When Wisconsin (11-4, 2-0 in Big Ten play) takes on Illinois (14-3, 1-2) at 1:15 p.m. CT Saturday at the Kohl Center, the Illini will resemble little of the team that last appeared on the same court. They are a motivated, high-tempo unit that is eager to prove they belong with the best in the conference.
"In their minds, I think they perceive it as a shot in the arm with the change," Badgers assistant coach Lamont Paris said. "If you look at it from a talent standpoint, you lose Meyers Leonard and some good players over the last two years. Talent-wise, I don't know that they have any more talent, but they are playing in a rejuvenated state."
With at least two months remaining in the season, Illinois has nearly matched its win total from a year ago, when the team finished 17-15 overall and 6-12 in the Big Ten. The Illini rolled to 12 consecutive victories to begin the season, including wins against Butler and Gonzaga — both ranked in the Associated Press top 15 this week — to establish themselves as a player on the national stage.
Badgers forward Mike Bruesewitz said he talked with Big Ten Network basketball analyst Jim Jackson — whose son, Traevon, is Wisconsin's starting point guard — about Illinois earlier this season and came away impressed.
"He said the big thing their coach does is he really knows how to make guys run and understands how to run the fast break and how to play at a much faster pace," Bruesewitz said. "He understands how to do that. It shows. They shoot a lot of 3s. They get up and down the floor. They defend. They've got guys that are willing to play. They've always had the talent. They're putting it together right now, and it shows."
This season, Illinois is a team that shoots from long range — and shoots often.
Illinois has attempted the second-most 3-point field goals in the entire country at 435, behind only Texas Southern's 442. Northwestern is the next highest Big Ten team with 354 attempts. Illini guards D.J. Richardson (123) and Brandon Paul (115) both rank in the top 25 nationally in 3-pointers attempted
"Everyone is ready to catch and shoot," Wisconsin forward Ryan Evans said. "So everybody is dangerous out there. We have to be ready defensively."
Paul, Tracy Abrams and Richardson are the only three players averaging in double figures scoring for Illinois. The trio has combined to average 41.6 points per game.
Wisconsin, meanwhile, will rely on the strength of its senior frontcourt combination of Evans, Bruesewitz and center Jared Berggren, who average 32.0 points per game. Guard Ben Brust (11.3 points) and forward Sam Dekker (9.1 points) also have emerged as reliable scoring threats.
Wisconsin didn't play particularly well in victories against likely Big Ten bottomfeeders Penn State and Nebraska, but the Badgers escaped with victories. Illinois will offer a substantially more difficult challenge, as the Badgers attempt to start Big Ten play 3-0 for the first since the 2008-09 season.
For Wisconsin, the game serves as the beginning of an 11-game stretch that will certainly define the Badgers' season — or rather their chances to reach a 15th consecutive NCAA Tournament. Nine of Wisconsin's next 11 conference games come against teams ranked in the AP top 25. The other two games are against an Iowa team that swept the Badgers last season.
"Especially in the Big Ten when it's loaded, I'm not surprised that we play that many teams that are ranked," Bruesewitz said. "The league is great this year top to bottom. It's not a big shock."
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