The Commercial-News, Danville, IL

January 8, 2014

Major challenge for Fighting Illini

BY CHAD DARE cdare@dancomnews.com
The Commercial-News

---- — MADISON, Wis. — Illinois coach John Groce gets a wry smile on his face when asked about playing the Wisconsin Badgers at the Kohl Center in Madison.

The second-year head coach of the Fighting Illini knows very well the “well documented” history of success for the Badgers on their home court.

In his 13th season with Wisconsin, Bo Ryan teams are 190-18 (.913 winning percentage) at home, including 92-11 (.893) in Big Ten Conference games.

“It’s always a great challenge to play them, it’s always a great challenge to play up there,’’ said Groce after the Illini defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions 75-55 on Saturday. “We love challenges. Nothing is easy in this league.

“They are tough to play regardless of where you play them.’’

That has certainly been the case this season as the fourth-rated Badgers are off to their best start in school history (15-0). It has been 90 years since Wisconsin started a year 15-0 and the only other time the school won its first 15 games was in the 1911-12 season.

“We know we have limitations,’’ said Ryan during Monday’s Big Ten teleconference. “We know that we might not be this, and we might not be that. But, we are more concern with what we are and what we can do.’’

According to Groce, the Badgers are a very disciplined and well-coached unit.

“They are a team when you watch them play, they really play the game the right way,’’ he said. “They play together at both ends of the floor. They don’t beat themselves.They don’t turnover it over. They make free throws late. They make the extra pass. All the little discipline and detailed things, that I think are important, they do well.

“At the end of the day, you have to beat them. They are not going to beat themselves.’’

Being a little bit of an older team with eight players that are either in their junior or senior seasons is a benefit, Groce said.

“They are really gifted offensively,’’ he added. “A little more unique offensively maybe than some of his other teams.’’

The Badgers are averaging 75.1 points per game this season, which four points per game more than any Wisconsin team has averaged under Ryan in 13 years. And Wisconsin is doing it with a well-balanced unit. Sam Dekker leads the team at 14.1 points per game, followed by Frank Kaminsky (13.5), Ben Brust (12.8) and Traevon Jackson (10.5) are all in double figures while fifth starter Josh Gasser (8.7) is also right there.

That starting unit has combined to average 59.6 points per game, while the Illinois starting five of Rayvonte Rice (18.7), Tracy Abrams (12.9), Joseph Bertrand (11.0), Jon Ekey (8.4) and Nnanna Egwu (7.9) are right there at 58.9.

“There is a lot of talent on that team,’’ Ryan said. “We know what we are in store for. They are one of the better team in the league. They are playing extremely well together.’’

But Ryan doesn’t seen this Fighting Illini team as being young with their starting five being all juniors and seniors, he sees it more as inexperienced in Big Ten action.

“Their veterans have done a good job with their young players,’’ he said.

Groce believes that playing six non-conference games away from the State Farm Center, including five outside the state of Illinois, has gone a long way toward getting this group prepared for its first Big Ten road contest of the year.

“Our team has made a lot of progress,’’ he said. “I think the non-conference schedule really helped us. I thought it make us closer. We played a lot of different teams and a lot of different styles. I think that really helped our team in term of its growth.’’

Illinois will get a chance to take a major step forward tonight. For the first time this season, the Illini are rated in the Associated Press Top 25 Poll and the last five rated teams to play Wisconsin at the Kohl Center have left with losses.

“We have talked a lot about that kind of thing, we are not going to get caught up in all that stuff,’’ Groce said. “It’s great to be rated, it’s a byproduct of them playing some good basketball here of late.

“We still have a long ways to go. We have said the Big Ten Conference is an 18-round boxing match and we’ve done only two rounds, so far.’’

Groce added that no players had being ranked as one of their goals for this season.

“We want to be that team that is consistently improving,’’ he said.

Ironically, Illinois is tied with Purdue for the most wins against Ryan-coached teams at the Kohl Center. Both the Illini and the Boilermakers have three victories in Madison. Illinois was the first league school to beat Ryan in Madison with a 75-65 win over Wisconsin on Jan. 25, 2005 and the Illini also won games there in 2006 and 2010. Bertrand is the only player on this year’s roster that was a part of that 2010 Illinois team.

After tonight’s game in Madison, the Illini will play their second straight road game on Sunday with a 6:30 p.m. contest in Evanston against the Northwestern Wildcats and their first-year head coach Chris Collins.

Site -- Kohl Center When -- 8 p.m. Records -- Illinois 13-2 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten; Wisconsin 15-0 overall, 2-0 in the Big Ten. Rankings -- The Illini are No. 23 in the latest Associated Press Top 25 Poll; Wisconsin is No. 4. Television -- Big Ten Network Radio -- Fighting Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Jerry Hester. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1. Previous results -- Illinois leads the all-time series with Wisconsin 110-79, but Wisconsin has won the last five including a pair of wins a year ago. The Badgers defeated the Illini 74-51 in Madison on Jan. 12, 2013; and Wisconsin beat Illinois 74-68 in Champaign on Feb. 3, 2013. Last games -- The Illini defeated the Penn State Nittany Lions 75-55 on Saturday; while the Badgers beat the Iowa Hawkeyes 75-71 on Sunday. Up next -- Illinois is back on the road with a contest on Sunday in Evanston against the Northwestern Wildcats; while Wisconsin is idle until traveling to Bloomington, Ind., to play the Indiana Hoosiers next Tuesday. Starting lineups -- Illinois: G Tracy Abrams, 6-2, jr.; G Joseph Bertrand, 6-6, sr.; G Rayvonte Rice, 6-4, jr.; F Jon Ekey, 6-7, grad; C Nnanna Egwu, 6-11, jr. Wisconsin: G Ben Brust, 6-1, sr.; G Josh Gasser, 6-3, jr.; G Traevon Jackson, 6-2, jr.; F Sam Dekker, 6-7, so.; C Frank Kaminsky, 7-0, jr. STATISTICAL LEADERS Scoring -- Illinois: Rice 18.7; Abrams 12.9, Bertrand 11.0; Wisconsin: Dekker 14.1, Kaminsky 13.5, Brust 12.8, Jackson 10.5. Rebounding -- Ekey 5.9, Rice 5.8, Bertrand 5.5, Egwu 5.3; Wisconsin: Dekker 6.3, Kaminsky 5.9, Brust 5.0 Assists -- Illinois: Abrams 3.3, Jaylon Tate 2.6, Rice 1.9; Wisconsin: Jackson 4.3; Gasser 1.8, Brust 1.6.