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2/18 Big Ten Preview: Bezhanishvili Battles the Badgers

Illinois heads to Madison on Monday night

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Don’t look now, but Illinois has won four in a row and looks like the most dangerous team in the Big Ten right now. Their first road win came Thursday in Columbus. Could the second take place in Madison tonight?

Let’s take a look.

Game of the Night

-Illinois Fighting Illini at Wisconsin Badgers

  • Time/TV: 8:00 PM EST, FS1
  • KenPom Spread: Wisconsin (-13)

As much as people are talking about Illinois and everyone’s favorite freshman from Rustavi, we really ought to start with Wisconsin and their senior from Milan, Illinois. The Badgers are No. 11 in KenPom, No. 15 in the NET, and Ethan Happ is the best player in the country not named Zion Williamson. Greg Gard’s squad’s two most recent games—losses to Michigan and Michigan State—might have taken the Badgers out of the Big Ten title hunt, but Wisconsin hasn’t lost a game it was supposed to win since January 3. That includes a win in Champaign on January 23.

More than any other matchup in the Big Ten, this game will be a clash of styles. Wisconsin wants to play slow. They take care of the ball and don’t force turnovers. In contrast, the Illini really only do two things well—play fast, and create turnovers.

Experience tells us that neither team will totally dictate its style, but that we’ll get something in the middle that leaves both teams slightly uncomfortable. The first meeting on January 23 was a 67-possession game. That’s the highest (non-overtime) number of possessions in conference play for the Badgers, and the lowest number of possessions for Illinois. In that first meeting, the Illini actually managed to turn Wisconsin over 17 times; in most games this season, the Badgers have had turnovers in the single digits.

At this point, I think everyone knows that Wisconsin boasts one of the best 3-point shooters in the league in D’Mitrik Trice. What I don’t think people realize is that Illinois’ Trent Frazier is right up there with him. During this four-game winning streak, Frazier is shooting better than 50% from deep. The first game between these two teams was a dozen-point Badger victory mainly because Illinois shot an atrocious 19% from beyond the arc. That doesn’t seem like a recipe that Wisconsin can rely upon again.

The final surprising thing about that first meeting is that it was Wisconsin’s other big man, Nate Reuvers, who did the most damage inside. Reuvers finished the night with 22 and 10, as Happ was saddled with foul trouble. (Bezhanishvili wasn’t a national sensation yet at that point, but he added 20 and 8 in opposition. Not too shabby.)

  • Pick Against The Spread: Illinois. I don’t see how you can pick against Brad Underwood’s team right now. I doubt the Illini have the firepower to take home the W, but they’re good enough to cover.

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Season Record Picking Against KenPom’s Spread: 21-26-1