It wasn’t the blowout it was in the first meeting this season between Illinois and Wisconsin, but just like that Jan. 8 matchup in Madison, the Badgers were simply the better team.
“They kicked our tail,” Illinois head coach John Groce said after the game. “They won. They played better.”
It's hard to argue with Groce following the Illini’s eighth straight loss, a 75-63 defeat at the hands of the hot-shooting Badgers on Tuesday night in Champaign. Wisconsin didn’t rack up the 95 points it did in that first win, but it was equally unstoppable. The Badgers shot nearly 48 percent from the field and a sterling 10-of-23 from 3-point range. Bo Ryan got at least 14 points from four different players, and the Illini just couldn’t answer as Sam Dekker and others splashed home one clutch 3-pointer after another down the stretch.
“We threw everything at them tonight,” Groce said. “We trapped them, we changed coverage, we played zone. We tried any and everything tonight to try and slow them down.”
The Illini were riding as high as a team can ride while on a losing streak of this length following a strong performance in a Saturday loss to Iowa that saw them erase a 21-point first-half deficit. Groce was effusive in his praise for his team’s effort following the game against the Hawkeyes, and hopes were it could carry over into a game against the struggling Badgers.
But the Badgers did anything but struggle.
Shooting had been a problem for Wisconsin during their own skid. The Badgers were losers in five of their previous six games entering Tuesday night. But those shooting woes were corrected in time for a clinic against the orange and blue.
“We’re trying everything,” Groce said. “I’m open to anything and everything. We talk about being solutions-based, we’ve talked about that before. We are going to continue to stay positive and fight. I do think we played hard. Were we able to muster up that energy level that we had the other night? I don’t know. At times maybe, on some possessions. And I kept begging them for that.”
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Groce admitted the answers are difficult to find when it comes to lifting this team out of an incredible slump. But the answer as to why they’re in it might not be as difficult to uncover. This year’s group of Illini isn’t as deep as in years past. Couple that with what have been, at the least, inconsistent performances from the players who are supposed to be the go-to guys, and you have a team that’s on an eight-game losing streak in Big Ten play.
“Everybody has to be hitting on all cylinders,” Groce said. “We’re not the type of team, in this particular year, where two or three veterans can have an off night or we can have unforced turnovers. Some other teams might have a larger margin for error. I’ve coached some teams that have had a larger margin for error with some of those things.
"Our margin for error is very, very small.”