Thursday’s lackluster performance in a loss to No. 8 Michigan State may have brought significant concern for players and fans, but the reality of the matter is that Wisconsin had an uncharismatic game and was defeated by arguably one of the nation’s top teams.
This Sunday, the Badgers (8-5 Big Ten, 16-10 overall) will have a much more favorable task when they face off against Illinois (4-9, 12-14) at the Kohl Center in a must-win matchup.
Currently projected as a 10 seed according to SB Nation, Wisconsin must leave Sunday’s home matchup with a win against an unranked conference opponent, as road games against No. 4 Iowa and No. 17 Purdue remain on its schedule.
Though Illinois on paper comes in as a clear underdog, UW barely escaped the Fighting Illini in a 63-55 win in Urbana-Champaign three weeks ago. At this point in the season especially, no opponent can be taken lightly.
After averaging 12 3-pointers in their past three games heading into East Lansing, the Badgers struggled immensely with their 3-point shot against the Spartans and only knocked down six from beyond the arc.
To get its deep attack back on track, Wisconsin will rely heavily on juniors Nigel Hayes, Bronson Koenig and Vitto Brown. The trio lead the Badgers in made 3-pointers and account for 24 percent of the team’s made shots from beyond the arc. In the loss to Michigan State, they combined for just three 3-pointers on 3 of 13 shooting. Yet, just days earlier in their win against No. 6 Maryland, the trio produced 12 threes on an impressive 12-of-20 shooting from deep.
However, relying on the 3-point game might not be a recipe for success Sunday.
UW will need to incorporate more its inside post game with redshirt freshman Ethan Happ as it allows for high-percentage buckets and kick-out opportunities. In the loss to Michigan State, Happ was nowhere to be found in the first half, as he was contained to four points. Not only was his scoring missed, but it also enabled the Spartans to lock down on the perimeter and forced Wisconsin to shoot an ugly 6-of-20 from 3-point range.
Illinois comes into Sunday’s contest after a dominating 16-point lead over Rutgers, but have just won two of its last six games.
As expected, Fighting Illini junior guard Malcolm Hill will be the focal point of the Illinois offense Sunday. The 6-foot-6 guard has been the Illini’s most valuable player, averaging 18.5 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. Earlier this season, Hill slashed the Badgers with 22 points and was especially big in the second half.
Aside from Hill, Illinois remains average in nearly every statistical category in the Big Ten. One category where they struggle, however, is their team defense. They rank second-to-last in the conference in team defense and allow 75.2 points per game.
At this point, no coach, player or fan knows what is in store for the Badgers from Sunday onwards. From getting an invite to the NCAA Tournament to finishing close to .500 and finishing worse than fourth in conference play for the first time in 14 years, there is still much to be determined.
The roller-coaster drama will only continue as March approaches.