No. 23 Illinois will have rank tested against No. 4 Wisconsin Wednesday
BY HERB GOULD For Sun-Times Media January 7, 2014 10:39PM
Illinois coach John Groce (left) said this could be Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan’s “most explosive offensive team” yet. | Andy Manis /AP
Updated: January 7, 2014 11:09PM
This could be the start of something big.
The ink isn’t even dry on its first Top 25 ranking of the season, but No. 23 Illinois will have to deliver its best performance of the season at No. 4 Wisconsin on Wednesday to keep that ranking.
At 15-0, the Badgers have equaled their best start in school history. And because of its balance and versatility, this Wisconsin team has a chance to be the best in Bo Ryan’s 13 seasons.
“I’ve watched them play a lot over the years,’’ Illini coach John Groce, who studied Ryan’s teams as an Ohio State assistant, said Tuesday. “This looks like [Ryan’s] most explosive offensive team.’’
Wisconsin, which has been known for defense under Ryan, now has added offense. With seven players who shoot from beyond the arc, the Badgers are 39.6 percent on three-point shots, tops in the Big Ten.
A loss at the Kohl Center, where Wisconsin is 92-11 against Big Ten teams in Ryan’s 13 seasons, wouldn’t change all that much for Illinois. A win, though, would be huge for the Illini, who have handed Wisconsin three of those 11 losses.
The Badgers aren’t unbeatable. They trailed Iowa 35-24 at halftime on Sunday before pulling out a 75-71 win when Hawkeyes coach Fran McCaffery’s tirade gave them four free throws.
And if Wisconsin frontliners Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky like to step out and shoot, their Illini counterparts, Jon Ekey and Nnanna Egwu, are mobile enough to go with them. Illinois’ three guards also are well-equipped to hang with the Badgers’ perimeter.
Being capable of mustering that kind of effort and actually doing it, of course, is a different matter. That’s especially true at the raucous Kohl Center, where Wisconsin has lost only 18 games (190-18) in Ryan’s 13 seasons.
“It’s one of the most difficult places to play in the country,’’ Groce said. “But that’s all right. If you’re a guy who has a winner’s mind-set, you love challenges. You love adversity. Our group has shouldered that, has had a little toughness about us. We’re looking forward to that challenge.’’
One other story line: As strong as the Badgers and Illini have looked so far, their rosters say both are likely to be even better next year. Wisconsin loses only Ben Brust, and Illinois has three capable transfers who’ll be eligible to offset the departures of Ekey and Joseph Bertrand.
In other words, this meeting could be the first of many in which these two teams stand in each other’s way.