Tuesday night, the Wisconsin Badgers went on the road to Champaign to face off against a struggling Illinois team.
The road has not been kind to many Big Ten teams this season, but Wisconsin ran into relatively few problems on Tuesday night.
The Badgers quickly jumped out a 16-2 lead behind six points from Ethan Happ. The Badgers maintained their double-digit lead and were on top 33-20 at the break. It was the lowest halftime point total of the season for Jon Groce’s Fighting Illini.
The second half appeared to have the Badgers cruising towards a sixth consecutive victory, but Illinois made things interesting. The Illini got within six at 42 - 36 with 10 minutes to play, but Wisconsin hit timely shots, played solid defense and pulled away to defeat the Illinois for the 11th consecutive time.
Let’s take a look at three key takeaways from tonight’s game.
What We Learned
1. Wisconsin Played Like a Big Ten Champion on the Road.
To win Big Ten regular season championship, a team needs to protect its home floor and have a winning record on the road. Wisconsin (19-3, 8-1) is following that script and showed it tonight against Illinois.
The State Farm Center can be a difficult place to play, but the Badgers handled the challenge with relative ease.
Wisconsin looked poised, in-sync and imposed their will against a desperate Illini team. They dominated field goal shooting percentage (42% - 27%), grabbed 45 rebounds (19 of those were offensive) and limited Illinois’ leading scorer, Malcolm Hill, to 10 points on 4-14 shooting.
Road wins are always difficult in the Big Ten and this type of win, while not pretty, is often the difference between first and second place in the conference. Wisconsin did not let a slip up happen.
2. Illinois Looks Lost on Offense.
Some ugly numbers for the Illini on offense. They shot 27% from the field, 23% from three and 66% from the line on only nine attempts.
Now to be somewhat fair to the Illini, Wisconsin is rated sixth in the country in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, but too many times Illinois just looked totally out off-kilter on offense.
From afar, it looks like Illinois (13-10, 3-7) has trouble playing together and establishing a flow on offense. Too often their offense will just rely on one-on-one dribble breakdowns late in the shot clock. Some of this makes sense, especially when you have a player like Malcolm Hill. However, Illinois gets themselves into trouble when that first option is stopped and the ball handler is desperately looking for a jump shot or a kick out three-pointer for a team mate.
Illinois did seem to try and work some post-ups with Maverick Morgan (4 -8 from the field) and Leron Black (2-8), but this was largely ineffective due to Wisconsin’s excellent post defense.
It is hard to fix things in college basketball when a team is rolling into February, but the Illini are averaging just 61 points per game over the last six games (1-5).
3. Ethan Happ is Playing the Best Basketball of his Career Right Now.
Ethan Happ added another double-double tonight (8th of the season) with 14 points and 13 rebounds. The game tonight is coming off the heels of his spectacular 32 points performance at Rutgers on Saturday. Happ’s averages over his last four games (22 points, 9.75 rebounds, 61% shooting) put him up for some of the best play of his career.
Caleb Swanigan of Purdue is receiving most of the attention for Player of the Year in the Big Ten (and he is ridiculous). However, do not sleep on Ethan Happ in the second half of the conference season. He probably does not have enough to challenge Swanigan, but he is playing at an extremely high level right now and his team is in first because of him.
Wisconsin kept pace with Maryland tonight with their win at Illinois. Both teams head to the second half of conference play tied for first. The Badgers will next take the court at home against an injury-plagued Indiana Hoosiers team on Sunday. Illinois will host Minnesota on Saturday.