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Illinois can’t afford to flunk road test at Wisconsin

Guard Joseph Bertr(2) battles for rebound during Illinois’ loss Minnesota. The Illini have had success Wisconsagainst Bo Ryan’s teams winning

Guard Joseph Bertrand (2) battles for a rebound during Illinois’ loss to Minnesota. The Illini have had success at Wisconsin against Bo Ryan’s teams, winning three times. | Darrell Hoemann~AP

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Updated: February 13, 2013 6:12AM

The big picture is that No. 12 ­Illinois could start digging a hole if it’s not up to the challenge when it visits Wisconsin on Saturday.

For all they’ve accomplished in an impressive 14-3 start, a loss in Madison would leave the Illini 1-3 in Big Ten play and put pressure on a team that didn’t handle pressure well last year after a strong start.

But those thoughts are for fans and media.

“You can’t get self-absorbed in any win or any loss in this league, or your mind won’t be right,’’ coach John Groce said Friday. “In terms of it getting away from you and all that, I can’t control that. We’re playing a good team in a tough environment. We have to make more plays than we made Wednesday night. I’m more concerned with that than ‘What if this happens or that happens?’ ’’

For Groce and the Illini, it’s about the little things, finishing plays and being patient and efficient against a Wisconsin team that’s 175-16 at the Kohl Center in 12 years under Bo Ryan, including 85-9 in Big Ten games. Illinois handed the Badgers three of those losses, tops in the league.

On the other side of the big-picture ledger, a fourth victory at Wisconsin would give the Illini momentum in a league in which the six teams with winning records are a combined 7-2 on the road.

Groce saw a lot of positives Wednesday in Illinois’ 84-67 loss to No. 8 Minnesota.

“I thought we competed really hard,’’ he said. “We had our high for the year in toughness plays. At the end of the day, we didn’t throw enough shots in and made too many mistakes in transition defense.’’

Making shots is going to tell the tale this season for the Illini, who are sixth in the nation with 9.4 three-point field goals a game. But they’re 10th in the Big Ten in categories such as assists (10.9) and rebounding margin (plus-0.9).

While the Illini are perimeter-based, the Badgers — who lead the Big Ten in scoring defense (54.9 points a game) — are an inside-out squad, particularly since the early-season loss of point guard Josh Gasser.

“It starts with their defense; their defense is tremendous,’’ Groce said. “And the reality is, It’s hard to speed them up. They want a game with a certain tempo. We want a game with a certain tempo. It’s probably going to be somewhere in the middle. Good teams have the ability to adapt.’’

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