Wisconsin is tough team to play at home. Well, given the Badgers' undefeated record, they're a tough team to play pretty much anywhere.
There are many challenges facing the freshly ranked Illini (No. 23 in the AP poll) when they head to the Kohl Center on Wednesday night. But they all come in the form of the Badgers, and they all come dressed in red and white.
Chief among them is the team itself. The No. 4-ranked team in the country, the Badgers are one of just a handful of undefeateds left in college basketball, the only undefeated team in the Big Ten after Ohio State fell at Michigan State on Tuesday. Wisconsin plays terrific defense, holding opponents to an average of 60.5 points per game, and it has a well-balanced offense with four players averaging more than 10 points per game. That includes Sam Dekker, who's averaging a team-leading 14.1 points per game along with a team-leading 6.3 rebounds per game, and Ben Brust, the Chicago-area native and conference's leading 3-point shooter. He's splashed home 42 shots from long distance so far this season.
But Illini head coach John Groce said it's beyond mere numbers what makes Wisconsin so good. It's the little things.
"I think they're tough to play regardless where you play them, and obviously their success up there is well documented. They're a team, when you watch them play, they really play the game the right way," Groce said during Monday's Big Ten coaches teleconference. "They play together at both ends of the floor, and they do not beat themselves. They don't turn it over, they make free throws late, they make the extra pass. All the little discipline and detail things that I think are important, they do well."
But while Wisconsin does those little things well all over, they do everything well in Madison, where Bo Ryan's teams have been nearly unbeatable. Under Ryan, the Badgers have posted a jaw-dropping 190-18 record at the Kohl Center. Now, the quality of basketball teams under Ryan has an awful lot to do with that, but the coach likes to think the Grateful Red brings something to the table, as well.
"I think it's the energy of the fans, the support that they give. And players sense that. I think that helps them to give maybe a little extra," Ryan said on Monday's call. "I would like to think that it's the way the players have played together at home that's had the most to do with that type of record. But you also know that the outside forces of energy in the building and fan support and those type of things, you can't get accomplished what our guys have done without that. And there's a lot of tough places in the Big Ten to play, matter of fact all of them. But I do appreciate what our fans give us, and I know the players do."
Groce and his players, however, have prepared for the hostile environment awaiting them Wednesday night. While the 2-0 start to Big Ten play that has the Illini on the rise is thanks to a pair of home wins, the Illini's non-conference schedule was dotted with games away from Champaign. That includes a largely pro-Oregon crowd in a game the Illini nearly won in Portland, a pair of games against major-conference foes in Atlanta and that thrilling Braggin' Rights showdown with Missouri in St. Louis.
After practice Tuesday, Illini senior guard Tracy Abrams specifically pointed out the game vs. rival Mizzou as one that has helped Illinois get ready for Big Ten road trips. Groce said those non-conference road tests are part of the reason his team has showed the improvement it has.
"Obviously, our team has made a lot of progress throughout the course of the season. I think the non-conference schedule really helped us, playing away from home six times, which tied two other teams in our league for the most trips away from home," Groce said. "I thought it made us closer. Played a lot of different teams, a lot of different styles, a lot of different environments, played in some tough environments. So I thought that really helped our team in terms of its growth and its ability to mature and evolve."
The Illini have certainly evolved, too. Projected in the preseason as a team looking to spend the majority of the year finding its footing, the Illini have lost just twice, and they've come away with impressive wins against Missouri and Indiana in recent weeks. There's no doubt Wisconsin will be Illinois' biggest test to date, particularly playing in Madison. But the Illini boast the Big Ten's leading scorer in Rayvonte Rice, who's averaging 18.7 points per game, and one of the league's best defenses. Sure Wisconsin is holding opponents to 60.5 points per game, but Illinois is right there, limiting opponents to just 61.5 points per game.
"There's a lot of talent on that team, and coach Groce has them playing, has them working together and doing some things where we know what we're in store for. Whether or not we can answer all their challenges will remain to be seen," Ryan said. "But I think they are one of the better teams in the league, and at this stage of the game they're playing extremely well together."
Illinois hasn't beaten a top-five opponent on the road in 25 years, with the famous Flyin' Illini winning at Indiana in 1989. But a 2-0 start to Big Ten play and a brand-new ranking is sure to have these risin' Illini confident heading into their biggest game of the year.
"It gives us a nice comfortable cushion, to be 2-0," senior forward Nnanna Egwu said Tuesday after practice. "And to be able to try and go 3-0, I think that's a big goal for us. As long as we keep doing what we're doing defending, rebounding I think we have a good chance to be 3-0."