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Illini flunk their first significant test in 95-70 debacle against Wisconsin

Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky shoots against Illinois' NnannEgwu during first half an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday Jan. 8 2014 MadisWis.

Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky shoots against Illinois' Nnanna Egwu during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Wednesday, Jan. 8, 2014, in Madison, Wis. Egwu fouled Kaminsky on the play. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

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Updated: January 9, 2014 12:29AM

MADISON, Wis. — It was just one loss for Illinois. Not the first this season, and surely not the last.

But it was a big one, let’s not kid ourselves about that. The 23rd-ranked Illini’s 95-70 defeat Wednesday night at No. 4 Wisconsin was loud and clear about the considerable differences between an up-and-comer in the Big Ten and an already-there.

A 50-25 halftime score wasn’t what the Big Ten had in mind as it promoted three Top 25 matchups in the league this week. The first of those, Michigan State’s overtime victory over Ohio State on Tuesday, was an instant classic. The second was a nearly instant train wreck for the Illini (13-3 2-1 Big Ten).

A basket by Joseph Bertrand (18 points, nine rebounds) narrowed an early deficit to 13-10 with 14:18 remaining in the first half. From there, the Badgers exploded on a 20-0 run over the ensuing 6:04.

It wasn’t the three-point shot that enabled the Badgers to dominate. It was a parade of post-ups and drives to the rim — and 17 shots from the free-throw line, 14 of which the Badgers converted. If it wasn’t Sam Dekker (17 points) posting up a much smaller Tracy Abrams, it was smooth 7-footer Frank Kaminsky (15) maneuvering around a slower-footed Nnanna Egwu.

In a nutshell, the Badgers — 16-0 for the first time in school history — did whatever they wanted to do against a porous Illinois defense.

They moved the ball beautifully and shot 56.1 percent from the floor. The Illini played most of the game without any crispness on offense, totaling a meager four assists as they made just 31.6 percent of their shots.

“I thought when we got hit … I didn’t like our response to that,” Groce said. “That response falls on me and our captains. We’ve got to get that addressed quickly. That’s not who we are.”

It’s a very different roster in Groce’s second season as coach, but this certainly resembled the Illini’s experience here a season ago, when they fell behind 14-0 out of the gate and were blown out 74-51. Only there’s no question the Badgers are a lot better this season. Many believe it’s Bo Ryan’s best squad yet, particularly at the offensive end. Groce described the task of defending them as “a monster.”

“I’m proud of our team, proud of what the accomplished,” Ryan said after the Badgers improved to 3-0 in the conference. “Let’s try to keep it going.”

These Illini, meanwhile, will have to re-earn their budding reputation as a team on the rise. That Top 25 ranking will go away, as it should. Groce’s coaching will intensify, as it must.

For the most part, other than Bertrand and Rayvonte Rice, who scored a game-high 19, the rest of the Illini were no-shows. Starters Egwu and Jon Ekey combined for 16 rebounds but offered nothing else of substance. The five freshmen off the bench continued to struggle as a group. Backup point guard Jaylon Tate, who played so well early this season, took another step in the wrong direction.

Illinois has lost six in a row to Wisconsin. The Illini also fell for the first time this season when scoring at least 70 points. They entered the game 9-0, and 23-2 overall under Groce, when hitting that mark.

Email: sgreenberg@suntimes

Twitter: @slgreenberg

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