Preview: Can Wisconsin Keep Their Streak Alive Against Illinois?

Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The Badgers host yet another tough conference matchup as they host the Fighting Illini.

By the Numbers:

Wisconsin Team Illinois
15-0 Record 13-2
#4 Rankings #23
1 RPI 11
3 BPI 27
4 Kenpom 43
5 Sagarin 39

January 8, 2014 - Kohl Center - Madison, WI

9:00 ET - BTN

Skinny:

It took quite the comeback, but Wisconsin eked out a victory over Iowa on Sunday on the back of Ben Brust. Iowa has given the Badgers trouble for the past few years, so wasn't surprising that the Badgers trailed at half. After being held scoreless in the first half, Brust exploded for 19 points, with 9 of them coming from behind the arc. It also didn't hurt that Iowa coach Fran McCaffery had a little tantrum, which gave Wisconsin 4 free points due to the technical foul free-throws. But Wisconsin kept their winning streak alive, and are off to the best start in school history.

Illinois has started equally fast, as they've finally snuck into the AP Poll Top 25. They've done so because of some recent thrilling victories, including a win over Missouri in the "Bragging Rights" game, and an overtime victory against Indiana at home. Transfer Rayvonte Rice has made an immediate impact on the Illini's offense, averaging 18.7 points per game, and he's been aided by guard Tracy Abrams' ball movement and perimeter defense. This is coach John Groce's second year at the helm, and he seems to be building on last year's trip to the Round of 32 in the NCAA Tournament.

Projected Starting Lineups:

Wisconsin Pos. Illinois
Traevon Jackson G Tracy Abrams
Ben Brust G Rayvonte Rice
Josh Gasser G Joseph Bertrand
Sam Dekker F Jon Ekey
Frank Kaminsky C Nnanna Egwu

Players to Watch:

Sam Dekker - After a successful freshman campaign as the 6th man last season, we knew Dekker would need to take on a much bigger role this season, both in playing time and leadership. It's evident that he's lived up to those lofty expectations. Because of Wisconsin's depth in the backcourt, Dekker has played the stretch-4 position for the majority of the season, and it's worked well. He's improved his rebounding from 3.4 per game last year to a team-high 6.3 per game this season, and has developed a nice inside-and-outside chemistry with center Frank Kaminsky. Inexplicably, he he couldn't find the bottom of the basket for the first 38 minutes against Iowa. Once he did find his stroke, he knocked down arguably the biggest shot of the game: a three-pointer off an offensive rebound to put the Badgers up by 4. For Wisconsin to continue winning, he can't have games where he shoots 2-12 from the field. While I'm confident that his poor shooting was both an anomaly and a credit to Iowa's tough defense, Illinois plays strong defense as well. They're allowing an effective FG% of only 45.1. It won't be easy, but look for Dekker to bounce back in a big way.

Bronson Koenig - The freshman from La Crosse, WI has impressed in small doses so far this year. We've broken down his potential on this site previously, but he has the chance to do something special in Madison. This Illinois game could be a chance to him to break out even more. The Illini have a lot of guards at their disposal off the bench, like Kendrick Nunn and Jaylon Tate. Both of those players, specifically Tate, are very active with the ball, and get to the rim frequently. If Groce starts to play smaller and more aggressive, Bo Ryan may call on Koenig to either become the primary ball-handler, or play off the ball. Koenig is more comfortable with the ball in his hands, but may have to change that if Bo needs to go small, but still wants Traevon Jackson on the court. Koenig didn't make a huge contribution against Iowa, with only 2 points in 8 minutes, so look for him to make his presence known against the Illini.

Rayvonte Rice - I've talked before about Rayvonte Rice's journey from growing up in Champaign and finally returning as a transfer to the Illini this season. He has singlehandedly brought this Illini team on the verge of contending. Not only does he score in high volumes, but he does so efficiently. He takes 28.2% of the team's shots, but maintains a True Shooting Percentage of 58.8%. That's very impressive considering that he has become, without a doubt, the go-to guy for Illinois when they need a bucket. You might expect someone so involved in their offense to turn the ball over a lot, but Rice is responsible with the ball, putting up a turnover rate of 10.0. Roy Devyn Marble of Iowa, a similar high-volume scorer, torched the Badgers all game, especially late, for a total of 27 points. If I'm Rice, I'm noticing how Marble was able to find open looks in the Badger defense. Look for Rice to continue his scoring tear, and put up big numbers yet again in this game.

Nnanna Egwu - The 6'11" Illini center faces a tough matchup against Frank Kaminsky. While Egwu spends most of his time in the paint, Kaminsky likes to play around the perimeter. His three-point shooting paid off against Iowa, as he hit 3 from behind the arc in the first half. His matchup that game was Adam Woodbury, who also mainly commands the low block. But Kaminsky forced Woodbury out of his comfort zone, and made him pay. While Egwu is a more seasoned and mature defender than Woodbury, Kaminsky's shooting could neutralize Egwu's physicality down low. Egwu will need to rely on his teammates to communicate and switch appropriately, or Kaminsky will go off from three yet again.

Staff Comments:

Wisconsin Perspective by Kevin Dlugos: Wisconsin is playing like a well-oiled machine right now. To me, their victory over Iowa spoke volumes about their ability to win games they shouldn't. Through the whole first half, Iowa had the Badgers in the palm of their hands. Iowa was demolishing them on the boards, and brought the Wisconsin offense to a halt. Last year's Wisconsin team would lose that game every time. They simply didn't have the depth nor the flexibility to come back against a good team like that. This year, they have the perfect mix of reliability and "spurtability" (sup Clark Kellogg). Ben Brust and Josh Gasser are models of consistency. They'll knock down threes and play tough defense each game, guaranteed. The wildcards of Traevon Jackson and Sam Dekker can sometimes have tough games, but when they're on, this team can't be stopped. When those two aren't playing well, Bo Ryan has the perfect foils in Bronson Koenig and Nigel Hayes to keep the offense going and keep the team on track. Unless Illinois starts as hot as Iowa did, they have a tough game ahead of them.

Illinois Perspective by Thomas Beindit (@tbendit): Illinois is coming into this game with some confidence.  Clearly, the challenge of taking down an undefeated team in January is nothing easy, but Illinois has already faced some tough challenges from teams like Oregon, Missouri, and Indiana and held their own.  Along with this, Illinois is also undefeated in conference play and looking to extend on its 4 game winning streak.  Maybe the task against Wisconsin is a bit too tall, but players like Rayvonte Rice might be able to make an impact on a tough Badger defense.  For Illinois, this game probably doesn't constitute a "must win" by any means, but any bubble talk would almost instantly disappear if they won this game.  Essentially, Illinois has nothing to lose in this one and almost everything to gain.

Prediction:

The Badgers proved their dominance with a win over a very solid Iowa squad in a game that they probably should have lost. The home crowd wasn't in full force and Iowa always gives Wisconsin trouble. While it took essentially a half for Wisconsin to find their stroke as a team, they hung around long enough so that Iowa never felt comfortable with a lead. Once they heated up, the Badgers made them pay. I don't think the Illinois frontcourt can effectively damper Wisconsin in the way that Iowa shut them down. The Illini are deeper at the guard position, but that's Wisconsin's strength. Unless Rayvonte Rice goes absolutely bonkers and Sam Dekker continues shooting as cold as the Madison air, I don't see Illinois escaping the Kohl Center with a victory. Wisconsin by 9.

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