The last time Illinois squared off with Wisconsin, the Illini were blown out at the Kohl Center for their first loss of the Big Ten season.
And they haven’t won since.
Illinois walked into that game with a top-25 ranking, and boy how things have changed since then. John Groce’s team has lost seven straight to plummet to last place in the conference. But the Illini aren’t the only one of those two teams in a drastically different position. The Badgers, then the No. 4 team in the country, have dropped five of their last six games and are out of the top 25 themselves.
So when the two teams meet Tuesday night in Champaign, will the Illini be able to exact a little revenge on the now-struggling team that kicked off their midseason spiral?
If it’s going to happen, the Illini are going to have to play better than they did in that first meeting, when the Badgers raced out to a monster lead, a 50-25 halftime advantage and an eventual 95-70 victory.
“I didn’t think we did much of anything well,” Groce said during a Monday press conference, recalling that Jan. 8 meeting in Madison. “Unfortunately I had to watch it (Sunday) again. I didn’t think we did anything well. ... I didn’t think we had the same fight. We got down 21 on Saturday, well (Wisconsin) got us down by about that number at their place and we didn’t have the same fight there that we did here.”
Groce’s reference to a 21-point deficit comes from the Illini’s most recent game, an 81-74 loss to Iowa on Saturday in Champaign. That game saw the Hawkeyes grab a 21-point edge in the first half before a furious Illini comeback that even saw them lead in the second half before eventually dropping their seventh straight contest.
If the Illini are going to have a chance against the Badgers on Tuesday, they’ll have to play like they did Saturday.
“Obviously we want to build on last week, that’s the biggest thing,” Groce said. “For 30 minutes of the game on Saturday, I thought it was the best we’ve played on both ends simultaneously in any Big Ten game. I was really proud of our guys’ effort. I thought we played really, really well.
“They played the game the right way on Saturday, they really did. It inspired me. That was unbelievable effort by those guys.”
Illinois’ chances seem better than usual against Bo Ryan’s Badgers because of the slump Wisconsin has been in itself, one that’s seen losses to Indiana, Northwestern and, most recently, an equally struggling Ohio State team. Couple Illinois’ performance Saturday with Wisconsin’s inability to win of late, and there could be a recipe for an Illini upset.
But Groce isn’t underestimating the Badgers one bit.
“Obviously we know they’re more than capable,” he said. “They have a lot of guys that can shoot the ball. A lot of them haven’t made as many from a percentage perspective as they were going into Game 1. But we know they’re capable. It’s a one-game deal tomorrow night, so really what has happened in the last five, six, seven games for them or us doesn’t have a lot to do with it.”