Game 22 Preview and Predictions: Wisconsin at Illinois

Caleb King’s (@calebking_2) Preview: The Badgers continue their Big Ten conference schedule tonight as they visit Champaign, IL to take on the Illinois Fighting Illini for a game scheduled to begin at 8pm on Big Ten Network.

The Fighting Illini come into the game with an overall record of 13-9, 3-6 in conference play; having lost four out of their last five. The Illini have had themselves quite the roller coaster of a season thus far. Their most impressive win, in my opinion, came at home against North Carolina State in the ACC/B1G Challenge by score of 88-74. NC State has some impressive wins this season and that looks very good on the Illini’s resumé. The Illini have fallen to ranked opponents West Virginia and Florida State, and tonight’s game against Wisconsin will be their highest ranked opponent they’ve faced thus far this season at the time of the game. They have a decisive win over Michigan at home by score of 85-69, but then went on to lose in Ann Arbor a little over a week later by score of 57-66; quite the different game. Their only other wins in the Big Ten Conference have come against Ohio State by a margin of five and Iowa by a margin of 12.

The Illini have been an impressive team when they’re playing on their home floor this season. They’re putting up drastically different quantities of points and holding their opponents on the defensive side of the ball. They are 10-2 when playing on their home floor, and 3-7 when away from Champaign. This is the only game the Badgers get against the Illini this season so they need to make sure they take care of business tonight.

The Illini are led by standout Malcolm Hill, who averages 17.5ppg, 5.9rpg, and 2.7apg. Hill will be the primary concern for the Badgers tonight as he has the ability to take over the game for a weaker Illini team and put his teammates in positions to make plays. He makes everyone around him better, and you can bet Coach Gard and the Wisconsin staff will have a lot of ideas and tactics to throw at Hill to get him out of his fluidity and out of his game.

Now let’s get to our Top-10 ranked Wisconsin Badgers.

The Badgers come into Tuesday night’s contest in Champaign back in the top-10 of the nation, as they’ve been ranked 10th in the latest AP Poll for this week. The Badgers come in with a record of 18-3 overall which is their third best start in school history, and 7-1 in conference play as they are tied atop the table with the Maryland Terrapins. (The Terrapins have the edge on overall record as they are 19-2 overall). The Badgers also ride a five game winning streak into the game as they’ve defeated Rutgers, Penn State, Minnesota, Michigan and Ohio State all in that stretch since their fall to Purdue on the 8th of January.

There is no doubt that the story as of late for the Badgers has been Sophomore superstar Ethan Happ. Happ just received his 2nd straight Big 10 Player of the Week honor, only the second Badger to win back-to-back in the programs history. (And no, the other Badger is not Alando Tucker, Frank Kaminsky, or Jordan Taylor, it was Mike Wilkinson). Ethan has carried the Badgers as of late. In the game at Minnesota Happ put up a career high (at the time) of 28 points, 12 rebounds, six assists, five blocks, and one steal. Then comes the Badgers win at Madison Square Garden where Happ carried Wisconsin with a new career high of 32 points to go along with six rebounds, four steals, three assists, and two blocks. Happ is now the only Big Ten player to lead his team in points (17.7), rebounds (8.1), assists (3.1), steals (2.8), and blocks (1.5) in conference games. Overall Happ’s numbers aren’t much worse (14.5ppg, 9.0rpg, 2.9apg, 1.0bpg, 2.0spg).

But Happ isn’t the only asset the Badgers have had recently. Bronson Koenig has decisively taken over games in the last six minutes of play and he’s been ‘fire’ late in the game. A commentator said this past weekend that they weren’t surprised Koenig missed a shot in the first half because it wasn’t with less than five minutes left in the game yet. Koenig has come up with some huge shots as of late and there is no doubt in my mind that he is the one player in the entire country that I want with the ball either late in the shot clock or without a doubt at the end of a game. Once ‘Klutch Koenig’ gets that ‘Koenig Kounter’ going, watch out! Because this man has ice in his veins and you’re in for a long night of trying to guard him. He’ll take you off the dribble and pull up on a dime. (Koenig is averaging 14.4ppg this season).

Hayes has also been playing solid as of late. Hayes’ court vision has really proved to be vital as of late, he’s always finding Happ or other Badgers shooters getting open and has been hitting the boards hard. The more Hayes keeps his game inside the three point line the better, and he’s proven as of late that he can and will get to the rim when he wants to. Hayes and Happ have done a phenomenal job getting opponents into foul trouble early as they’ve attacked the rim relentlessly and forced opponents to either foul or concede a bucket down low. That’s the kind of production we need from those two, to impose their will on the block. But that also means that they need to hit their free throws, which has been a struggle as of late for the both of them. (Hayes is averaging 13.4ppg, 5.8rpg, and 3.2apg).

A key for the Badgers tonight will be containing Malcolm Hill and not allowing him to get going early on. We’ll need to get in his face early and often and not let him have any space in pulling up. We need to make the rest of the Illini beat us, if we let Malcolm Hill beat us tonight it will be a failed assignment on everyone’s part.

My Player-To-Watch tonight is Ethan Happ. It goes without saying from what I said before that this kid is special and the reason he’s my player to watch is because he’s an Illinois kid. Back in the home state, and I’m sure a lot of family will be there to watch him and old friends as well. I look for Ethan to have another breakout game and to dominate in every area as he has as of late.

No Big Ten game on the road is easy. Nothing will be given to the Badgers tonight. They’ll have to work for everything they get if they want to escape Champaign tonight with the victory. Atop the Big Ten are the Badgers along with Maryland as I mentioned before, and they’ll need to keep winning to keep up with Maryland. We don’t want the matchup with Maryland at the Kohl Center on February 19th to be a catch-up game. These are the kinds of games you need to win to silence doubters and make the nation believe you are capable of winning the games you’re supposed to.

King’s Prediction: BADGERS 83 Illinois 68 (King is 13-3 on the season)

As always, #OnWisconsin

Ben Thorson’s (@benjthorson) Prediction: The Illinois are a completely different team on their home floor, it is a gym they are comfortable in and have experience winning big games in. But I’m not going to pick against the Badgers unless I’m over 50% confident they  are going to lose; like I was in our early season meeting with North Carolina. I happen to believe the Badgers are the best team in the Big Ten, despite what we saw Saturday against Rutgers. And if you are the best team in the Big Ten, then you find ways to win on the road against middle-tier conference teams. Wisconsin has to get back to their high efficiency on offense and play with the lead throughout to avoid disaster in Champaign. BADGERS 71 Illinois 65 (Thorson is 19-2 on the season)

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2016-17 Big Ten Basketball Preview

Big Ten play begins tonight as InsideWisconsin insiders Caleb King and Ben Thorson breakdown the Big Ten and its top players to watch as conference play begins.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding this Big Ten season per usual, as three conference teams find themselves in the AP-Top 25. Wisconsin leads the way with an 11-2 record and are currently ranked 14th in the country; as Purdue, also 11-2, follows at number 15, and Indiana is the 16th ranked team in the land after a 10-2 non-conference record.

Here is a list of opening conference games for all B1G Teams:

Tuesday, December 27th (CT):

Northwestern at Penn State (2:00pm, ESPN2)

Illinois at Maryland (4:00pm, ESPN2)

Rutgers at 14 Wisconsin (6:00pm, ESPN2)

Michigan State at Minnesota (8:00pm, ESPN2)

Wednesday, December 28th (CT): 

Nebraska at 16 Indiana (5:30pm, BTN)

Iowa at 15 Purdue (7:30pm, BTN)

Sunday, January 1st (CT):

Michigan at Iowa (1:15pm, BTN)

Ohio State at Illinois (6:00pm, BTN)

And here is a breakdown of each team during non-conference play, and the top players to watch for in the upcoming months:

The Heavyweights:

Indiana (10-2)

Top Victories: Kansas (12 in RPI), North Carolina (15)

Top Players: James Blackmon Jr. (18.5ppg 5.4rpg), OG Anunoby (12.0ppg 6.3 rpg 1.7bpg), Thomas Bryant (12.0ppg 7.8rpg 1.5bpg)

Indiana has the two most impressive wins amongst Big Ten teams in non-conference play as they defeated Kansas and North Carolina. They also have one of the worst losses as they were defeated by Fort Wayne. Can the Hoosiers be consistent enough over the next 18 games to win the Big Ten?

Wisconsin (11-2)

Top Victory: Georgetown (59)

Top Players: Nigel Hayes (13.5ppg 5.8rpg 3.4apg), Bronson Koenig (14.6ppg 2.3rpg 2.1apg), Ethan Happ (12.9ppg 9.5rpg 2.8apg 1.5spg)

Wisconsin is the most experienced team entering 2017 as their senior class has an 11-3 record in the NCAA Tournament, including two trips to the Final Four. Can Greg Gard get his offensive efficiency to where it was in 2015? If so, the Badgers will be the favorites in a congested Big Ten.

Purdue (11-2)

Top Victory: Auburn (42)

Top Players: Caleb Swanigan (18.3ppg 12.5rpg 3.0apg), Isaac Haas (14.3ppg 5.2rpg), Vince Edwards (11.8ppg 5.2rpg 3.8apg)

Purdue boasts one of the best front courts in the country with Caleb Swanigan and Isaac Haas. Many will argue that Swanigan is the top player in the conference, as the sophomore dominated non-conference play with 18.3 points per game and 12.5 rebounds. The Boilermakers are the stiffest challenge day-in and day-out in the conference. Will this lead to the Big Ten crown?

The Contenders:

Michigan (10-3)

Top Victory: SMU (49)

Top Players: Zak Irvin (14.1ppg 4.9rpg 3.5apg), Derrick Walton Jr. (12.4ppg 4.0rpg 3.8apg)

Senior guard Zak Irvin is off to an impressive start this season as he leads the Wolverines with 14.1ppg. Michigan is loaded with talent but lack consistency. Michigan dominated Marquette and Southern Methodist, but struggled in blowout losses to UCLA and South Carolina. Avoiding losses to Michigan, may be the key for the heavyweights to separate themselves from the pack.

Ohio State (10-3)

Top Victory: Providence (37)

Top Players: Jae’Sean Tate (14.3ppg 6.8rpg), Trevor Thompson (10.7ppg 9.2rpg 1.8bpg)

The Buckeyes are similar to Michigan, the talent is evident, but will the talent show up every night? So far this season, the Buckeyes have a head-scratching loss to Florida Atlantic, while hanging tough in defeats to UCLA and Virginia.

Michigan State (8-5)

Top Victory: Wichita St. (87)

Top Players: Miles Bridges (16.6ppg 8.8rpg 1.5bpg), Eron Harris (13.4ppg 3.8rpg), Nick Ward (13.2ppg 6.4rpg 1.9bpg)

The Spartans had a brutal non-conference slate that include four games, all losses, against RPI top-25 opponents. Freshman Miles Bridges was leading Michigan State thru its first nine contests with 16.6ppg and 8.8rpg before suffering an ankle injury. Can the young Spartans rebound from a shaky start?

Maryland (12-1)

Top Victory: Oklahoma St. (41)

Top Players: Melo Trimble (17.9ppg 3.1rpg 2.9apg 1.2spg) Justin Jackson (10.8ppg 6.0rpg)

When you think Maryland, you think Melo Trimble, and the guard is back for his senior season and is averaging 17.9ppg. Maryland had the 54th ranked non-conference schedule with their only defeat coming to Pittsburgh, 59-73. With Trimble in the lineup, Maryland always has a chance to win.

The Bubble Teams:

Minnesota (12-1)

Top Victory: Arkansas (16)

Top Players: Nate Mason (13.2ppg 3.2rpg 5.5apg 1.2spg), Amir Coffey (11.9ppg 3.6rpg 2.8apg)

Minnesota may be the biggest question mark in all of the Big Ten. The Gophers are currently ranked 8th in the RPI after playing the 32nd-ranked non-conference schedule. Nate Mason is making himself a household name throughout the Big Ten and Amir Coffey has been one of the most impressive freshman in the country. The Gophers lost their only road game during non-conference play, a 67-75 loss at Florida State.

Northwestern (11-2)

Top Victory: Wake Forest (19)

Top Players: Scottie Lindsey (14.9ppg 4.3rpg 3.2apg) Vic Law (13.7ppg 5.2rpg) Bryant McIntosh (12.2ppg 2.4rpg 5.5apg)

Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament, but with the leadership of junior Bryan McIntosh, the Wildcats are poised to make a run. Wins against Wake Forest (19th in RPI) and Dayton (53) are good starts to the resume.

Illinois (10-3)

Top Victory: VCU (35)

Top Players: Malcolm Hill (18.4ppg 6.3rpg 2.2apg), Leron Black (11.7ppg 6.7rpg)

Senior Malcom Hill is an explosive scorer, he already dropped 40 against Northern Kentucky this season. But what happens to the Fighting Illini when Hill is shut down? They couldn’t overcome it in non-conference losses to West Virginia, Florida State, and Winthrop.

Iowa (8-5)

Top Victory: Northern Iowa (103)

Top Players: Peter Jok (22.6ppg 6.2rpg 2.2apg 1.2spg), Tyler Cook (13.7ppg 5.3rpg)

Senior Peter Jok leads the conference with 22.6 points per game and he will make any game in Carver-Hawkeye Arena a headache for his opponents. This was already proven in a 78-64 victory over Iowa State. The Hawkeyes began their season with five losses in their first eight games, but are currently riding a 5-game win streak.

The Cinderella’s:

Rutgers (11-2)

Top Victory: Drexel (147)

Top Players: Nigel Johnson (12.7ppg 4.3rpg 3.1apg), Deshawn Freeman (12.2ppg 9.5rpg)

Rutgers is off to impressive start after only winning seven games in 2015-16. But their top non-conference win came against RPI ranked 147 Drexel. The improvement is evident, but we still only expect a handful of wins for the Knights.

Penn State (8-5)

Top Victory: George Washington (120)

Top Players: Shep Garner (14.6ppg 2.8rpg 3.1apg 1.5spg), Mike Watkins (10.5ppg 8.4rpg 3.3bpg)

Penn State has received solid play from junior Shep Garner and freshman Mike Watkins in the early going. The Nittany Lions hung tough with top-ranked Duke in an early season tilt that was decided by 10 points. Can PSU upset one of the contenders in the Bryce Jordan Center?

Nebraska (6-6)

Top Victory: Dayton (53)

Top Players: Tai Webster (17.0ppg 5.1rpg 4.0apg 1.1spg), Glynn Watson Jr. (12.6ppg 3.0rpg 2.8apg 1.9spg), Ed Morrow (10.3ppg 8.4rpg)

The Cornhuskers stumbled their way through a non-conference slate that included three games against ranked opponents. Nebraska is led by senior guard Tai Webster who averaged 17.0 points per game including a pair of 23-point nights against Louisiana Tech and Virginia Tech.

Which players and teams will surprise in the upcoming Big Ten hoops season? And which team will prevail as the Big Ten regular season champion? Share your opinions in the comments below or on twitter @InsideWisconsin.