Previewing Wisconsin Basketball At Illinois


Seven games in and the Big Ten has seen zero separation.  With Penn State’s upset win against Illinois on Thursday, every team in the league sits between 5-2 and 2-5 in conference. Wisconsin sits at 4-3,  just a game back of the lead and a half-game behind Illinois, Saturday’s opponent in one of the bigger games of Wisconsin’s remaining schedule.

Although it seemed like home court was hardly sacred any more in the Big Ten early on — Iowa beat the Badgers at the Kohl Center, the Badgers beat Purdue at Mackey Arena, Minnesota won at Indiana — things have righted themselves over the past week. The only road victory in the Big Ten since January 12 — the same night Wisconsin and Minnesota beat Purdue and Indiana respectively — only one team has won on an opponent’s floor in 10 tries, and that was Minnesota over a usually-hapless Penn State team (but not always-hapless, as Illinois found out).

As much as home court advantage plays, however, the loss at Penn State showed the vulnerabilities of the Illini. Can the Badgers capitalize at Assembly Hall on Saturday?

Illinois managed just 52 points in the loss to Penn State, yet another showing of inconsistent offense from the Illini. Perhaps there’s a better word for it: mediocre.

The Illini have mustered just 103.1 points per 100 possessions this season, 154th in the nation and a full 6.7 points behind the much-maligned Badgers offense. The problem? Outside of the last two games, the Illini’s most-used offensive weapon, Brandon Paul — you know him as the guy who dropped 43 points on Ohio State — hasn’t actually been good. In fact, he was really bad.

First 1636.428.468.
Last 261.563.

Paul hasn’t been able to correct his ball-handling issues in his two-game run of greatness, but things tend to be forgiven when 63.2% of three-pointers fall. Even with the turnovers, Paul still produced at an incredible rate of 1.33 points per possession over his last two contests, a far cry from his ugly 0.77 mark in his first 16 games or even his overall still-poor 0.85 mark for the season.

There’s no doubt that Paul has talent — players don’t put 43 on anybody, much less an excellent defensive Ohio State team, without it. But Paul has a reputation for chucking, and if the Badgers can keep him from catching fire — something Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans have done an excellent job of doing this season — the Paul from games 1-16 may show up, and that’s not just a player who doesn’t win games, it’s one that actively loses them.

The other reason for Illinois’s offensive inconsistency and mediocrity has been the up-and-down season of Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco. Maniscalco was seen as a revelation in the early portion of the season as he shot 54.7% from the field, over 40% from three while averaging nearly 14 points per game. Since? Utter collapse. Maniscalco has played more like his four years as a sub-43% shooter at Bradley would suggest, averaging just 6.1 points on just 28.7% shooting, unable to handle the defenses of Big Ten teams and the better non-conference squads the Illini faced in December.

However, the Illini do have some effective players, and the Badgers will be facing one of their biggest tests of the year in stopping Illinois big man Meyers Leonard. On offense, he is one of the countries most efficient shooters, shooting 60.8% from the field and with a 63.0 true shooting percentage which ranks in the top 100 in the nation. He also ranks among the nation’s top defensive rebounders and shot blockers thanks to his crazy length and 7’1″ frame. Jared Berggren will have to show up on Saturday — he is only averaging seven points and five rebounds per game in Big Ten play.

Despite the hype which followed Illinois after a long undefeated stretch against bad non-conference teams and then an upset victory over Ohio State, games like their loss at Penn State expose their mediocrity. Home court advantage is very important in college basketball, but the Badgers defense has been more than good enough to handle better offenses than Illinois’s this season. With even a reasonable shooting performance from the offense — something that hasn’t been a guarantee this season — the Badgers should be able to hand Paul, Maniscalco and the Illini a loss on their home court on Saturday.