Wisconsin Badgers vs Illinois Fighting Illini Basketball Recap
Wisconsin 76, Illinois 66
Two star guards made their presence felt in an important Big Ten battle on Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately for the Illinois Fighting Illini, the only post players who showed up at the Kohl Center were wearing the home white uniforms of the Wisconsin Badgers.
Yes, Illinois couldn’t shoot straight, and yes, the sons of Champaign-Urbana couldn’t keep their opponent away from the free throw line, but the biggest reason why Illinois lost in Madison, Wisconsin, was that it couldn’t achieve much of anything near the rim.
This was a very weird contest in the Midwest. Coach Bo Ryan’s Badgers bounced back from a stinging overtime loss at Michigan State by knocking off Bruce Weber’s Illini, but with the two teams combining for 77 free throw attempts (making 64 of them), hardly any offensive flow existed. The lack of defensive discipline on both teams set up a situation in which forwards and centers should have flourished. Wisconsin’s bigs took advantage of this dynamic, but Illinois’s pivot people couldn’t rise to the occasion.
Illinois’s loss can’t be blamed on guard Demetri McCamey. The senior hit only 3-of-13 field goal attempts, but he earned 21 foul shots and made 17 en route to 23 points. McCamey and his counterpart, Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor, produced parallel scorelines. Taylor was similarly unimpressive from the field, sticking just 3 of 10 shots from the floor, but Taylor went 16-of-18 at the charity stripe for a 22-point outing. McCamey and Taylor canceled each other out, meaning that this game was going to come down to who owned the low blocks. This is where Wisconsin stood out.
Illinois has been unable to go deep into the NCAA Tournament since its 2005 run to the national championship game (against North Carolina) because its big men have lacked the polish and aggressiveness needed to play with their backs to the basket. Illini center Mike Tisdale is much more of a face-up jump shooter than a back-to-the-basket player, and that’s why Weber has not been able to succeed as much as he would have hoped in recent seasons. On Saturday, Big Ten watchers were reminded of Illinois’ limitations in the post. Tisdale hit just three field goals and managed just eight points in 24 ineffective minutes. Tisdale’s veteran teammate, the long and lanky Mike Davis, scored only six points in 27 minutes as well. Illinois’s starters other than McCamey tallied just 23 points despite the foul-shooting frenzy (Illinois attempted 36 foul shots, while Wisconsin tried 41 charity pitches).
The reality was different for Wisconsin. Forwards Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil both did their jobs on the boards, combining for 16 rebounds, but they also scored as well. Leuer popped in 26 points while Nankivil chipped in with 14. While McCamey was the only Illini starter to achieve anything of note, Wisconsin’s four starters other than the aforementioned Jordan Taylor combined for 47 points. With McCamey and Taylor matching each other, Wisconsin’s 47-23 advantage involving the other eight starting players on the floor was obviously the difference.
Wisconsin, as is plainly apparent, is already solidifying an NCAA resume. Illinois has a big road win at Gonzaga (in Seattle) plus wins over Maryland and North Carolina, but since the Illini have dropped very bad games at Illinois-Chicago and Penn State, Weber’s roster has some work to do. Illinois missed the NCAAs last season, so if the Illini want to get back to the Big Dance, they need to ensure that the next time they earn 36 foul shots, their big men flourish as a result. If Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis don’t elevate their levels of performance, the Illini could be relegated to the NIT once again.