By Dave Wischnowsky –
(CBS) The Fighting Illini are an imperfect basketball team.
There are concerns about their ball-handling. Suddenly, there are concerns about their three-point shooting. And all season long, there have been concerns about their rebounding.
But by holding their own on the boards against Top 10 foes Ohio State and Minnesota, the Illini showed they can, in fact, rebound. Now, they need to need to show if they can, in fact, rebound.
As in bounce back. Once again.
After the No. 12 Illini were thoroughly thumped 84-67 by No. 8 Minnesota at Assembly Hall on Wednesday night, Illinois coach John Groce said about the Big Ten, “This league’s a monster, it’s a grind. It is what it is, the next one’s coming at you at 1:15 on Saturday.”
That would be this afternoon in Madison when Illinois (14-3, 1-2) squares off with Wisconsin (11-4, 2-0). At the Kohl Center, Badgers are an impressive 178-17 all-time since the joint opened its doors in 1998, including 9-1 this season.
Former Illinois coach Bruce Weber actually beat Bo Ryan in Madison three times, the most wins of any Big Ten school and a number that accounted for one third of Ryan’s nine conference home losses at the Kohl Center.
Of late, however, the Illini have fallen on hard times vs. Wisconsin, having lost five in a row to the Badgers. And it’s on Groce’s new regime to find an answer. If Illinois’ reaction following its loss at Purdue was any indication, though, Groce has them.
In the conference opener on Jan. 2, Illinois suffered a disappointing 68-61 setback against a mediocre Boilermakers team that shook the confidence of Illini Nation. But it didn’t seem to shake Illinois much as the team responded with a 74-55 domination of Ohio State in Champaign.
Now, the Illini have taken another punch to the nose against a very good Minnesota team, and we’ll have to see how they fare vs. a mediocre Wisconsin outfit. After a sluggish showing in nonconference games, the Badgers are off to a 2-0 start in the Big Ten, but those wins came against expected cellar dwellers Penn State and Nebraska. There are questions about how good Wisconsin is, no matter how good they’ve been during Ryan’s reign in Madison.
The same questions still abound for the Illini, despite their lofty national ranking and impressive overall record. The goal for this Illinois team remains a 9-9 Big Ten record, in my opinion. Anything better than that would be gravy. Anything less, meanwhile, would be a letdown based on Illinois 13-1 start to the season.
A .500 conference record in a fierce Big Ten should easily earn Illinois a berth in the NCAA Tournament. However, with one loss at Assembly Hall already on their ledger and daunting home games still looming against Michigan and Indiana, the Illini are going to need to steal some wins on the road.
To grab one today at Wisconsin would be a huge boon for the team as it heads into an “easier” stretch of winnable games against Northwestern (at home) and Nebraska (in Lincoln). Go 3-0, and the Illini are sitting pretty. Go 2-1, and they’re still solid – depending on which team that loss would come against. But to go 1-2 or 0-3 would spell an impending disaster on par with last season’s nightmarish Big Ten meltdown.
In order to notch a “W’ today against UW, Illinois is going to need to shoot much better than it did against Minnesota (3 of 24 on three-pointers for 12.5 percent). It’s also going to need to take care of the ball. And, of course, it’s going to need to rebound.
As well as rebound.
If nothing else, Dave Wischnowsky is an Illinois boy. Raised in Bourbonnais, educated at the University of Illinois and bred on sports in the Land of Lincoln, he now resides on Chicago’s North Side, just blocks from Wrigley Field. Formerly a reporter and blogger for the Chicago Tribune, Dave currently writes a syndicated column, The Wisch List, which you can check out via his blog at http://www.wischlist.com. Follow him on Twitter @wischlist and read more of his CBS Chicago blog entries here.