The Badgers open up postseason play in the Big Ten tournament today, beginning their quest for a Big Ten championship. As the No. 4 seed in the event, Wisconsin takes on No. 5 seed Illinois.
The two teams should know one another as well as anyone else, as Friday's game marks the second time the two squads face each other in the last six days, and the third time this season.
The regular-season series between No. 18 Wisconsin (13-5 Big Ten, 23-7 overall) and Illinois (10-8, 18-13) was a tale of two games. Feb. 9 the Illini came into the Kohl Center and knocked off the Badgers 63-56 to become the first unranked team to down UW under Bo Ryan at the Kohl Center.
Since that contest, the Illini dropped five of their final six games, including a crucial regular-season finale against the Badgers. Head coach Bruce Weber tabbed his team's second meeting against Wisconsin a must-win, but Illinois lost to the Badgers on its own floor by 15 points.
Now the two teams clash for a third time, with different goals in mind. Wisconsin is looking to improve its seed and win the event. A loss today to Illinois would not have major ramifications for Wisconsin in the long run, as the Badgers have secured their status as a member of the 65-team field in the NCAAs.
Head coach Bo Ryan, however, said his team will not approach the Big Ten tournament any differently than he normally would, especially with last season in mind, when Wisconsin was on the NCAA bubble. He did acknowledge, though, that there would be teams in critical situations, who need victories at this point of the season in the worst way.
""Some teams get into these things and it's all desperation, meaning their only chance of playing any more after this [is to succeed in the tournament],"" Ryan said.
No team fits that bill better than Illinois. ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently lists Illinois as the last team in the tournament, but a loss today could kill the Illini's chances. After falling to Wisconsin last Sunday, junior center Mike Tisdale called this game a ""do-or-die"" situation.
Wisconsin holds the momentum in the season series, but Ryan said he believes the Illini could come right back and take today's contest.
""For that 40 minutes [we played better], but now we have another 40,"" Ryan said. ""I don't have time to go ‘oh yeah, boy we did a good job.' We don't have time for that.""
But several trends stand out in the regular-season meetings that may have led to the outcomes.
The most apparent one is the presence of junior forward Jon Leuer. Leuer missed the first game, the one Illinois won, with an injury. In addition, the Illini's most dangerous post threat, Tisdale, scored 19 points on 8-of-11 shooting. But Leuer played in the second game and scored 20 points on 8-of-13 shooting, while Tisdale was less of a factor as UW held him to only four field goals.
Ryan downplayed the impact of Leuer.
""I'm not going to say that if we had Jon we would have won the game,"" Ryan said. But one would be hard-pressed to say, based on the season series, that Leuer does not make a difference.
The performance of Illinois junior guard Demetri McCamey is also a factor in today's matchup. In Illinois' win, McCamey scored 27 points on 11-for-17 shooting from the field. In UW's win, McCamey struggled, scoring 11 points on 2-of-8 shooting. The Illini need their First Team All-Big Ten player to succeed today.
The game tips off at approximately 1:25 p.m. and can be seen on ESPN.