Illinois went into Madison on Sunday red hot coming off a comeback overtime win over Michigan. The Illini had won four straight games, not to mention recently welcoming back the heart of the team, senior guard Rayvonte Rice from an injury then suspension. It was starting to look like very little could stop John Groce's men from prevailing in their final conference games, until they ran into the Wisconsin Badgers at the Kohl Center. The Illini had not won on the road in Madison since 2010, and the Badgers did not plan on that changing this year.
Despite starting the game off with three turnovers in four possessions, the Illini proved to keep the score competitive during the first half, and kept within eight at halftime. But the second half was all Wisconsin and Frank Kaminsky, and Wisconsin extinguished the orange and blue flame 68-49.
So what did we learn from Sunday's matchup in Madison?
What We Learned
Dekker and Kaminsky Are Vital To Badgers
Frank Kaminsky dominated both ends of the court against Illinois. Finishing with 23 points and 11 rebounds, Kaminsky played 35 minutes for the Badgers. During the short time in the first half that Kaminsky and Dekker subbed out, Illinois went on a 10-2 run. When the duo returned, Dekker quickly ended the Illini run with a breakaway dunk, adding to his ten points of the game. In addition to their statistical contributions, Kaminsky and Dekker's size was unmatched by the Illini. Illinois' Nnanna Egwu could barely compete with Kaminsky and Illinois switches on defense ended up matching the 5'9" Illini guard Ahmad Starks.
Illinois Needs Its Free Throws
As the No. 1 free throw shooting team in the nation, many of Illinois' wins have essentially come down to team free throw percentage. In their game against Wisconsin, the Illini did not shoot any free throws in the first half and went 9-11 in the second. In order for other teams to knock off the Illini, they are going to need to follow the Badgers' way and keep Illinois off the free throw line. In addition to Illinois' 40 percent field goal percentage, its lack of free throw attempts made a major impact its inability to keep up with the Badgers.
Rayvonte Rice Is The Spark Illinois Needed
Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice was back for his second game since a hand injury followed by a suspension kept the senior off the court since early January. Before his injury, Rice was a constant in the starting lineup for the Illini but has come off the bench in both of his games back. Rice contributed ten points in his 30 minutes of play Sunday, but it is his mental contributions that are more visible. Rice is an energy catalyst for the Illini and can turn the liveliness of the team up on both ends of the court. His presence may be a jumpstart for the Illini for the rest of the conference season and into the Big Ten tournament.
The game turned out as many had predicted. Illinois showed signs of making it a competitive game in Madison, but Wisconsin's size was too much to handle. Wisconsin did not give Illinois the opportunity to keep up via foul shots. Wisconsin maintained its steady lead throughout the entire game and proved that, despite Illinois' hot streak, the No. 1 team in the conference is a forced to be reckoned with at home.