In what could be many of the roster’s last game at the Kohl Center, the No. 23 Wisconsin Badgers (16-8 overall, 10-7 Big Ten) will face the No. 5 Illini (17-6 overall, 13-4 Big Ten) for the Badgers’ senior game on Saturday afternoon. All but two of the players in Greg Gard’s rotation — freshman Jonathan Davis and sophomore Tyler Wahl — are seniors.
When the Badgers took on the Illini in Champaign, they were crushed by the deadly tandem of junior guard Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore center Kofi Cockburn and lost by 15 points. Dosunmu recorded the second triple-double in Illinois basketball history in that game, and has since recorded another one against Minnesota.
However, in Tuesday’s game against Michigan State, Dosunmu endured a dirty hit from freshman Mady Sissoko on a drive to the rim. Sissoko was ejected from the game but Dosunmu stayed in. After the game, it was revealed that Dosunmu would miss multiple games with a broken nose and had no timetable to return.
As competitors, it’s fair to assume that the Badgers would have welcomed a chance to take on a full-strength Illinois team that frankly embarrassed them earlier this month. But as a team freefalling in the NCAA Tournament rankings according to multiple bracketologists, the Badgers need to capitalize on the loss of Dosunmu and get their first win against a top team in the Big Ten.
Not having Dosunmu is a massive loss for Illinois, but they are still formidable without him. Of course, they still have Cockburn, who bullied both Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter with 23 points and 14 rebounds. If Cockburn gets the ball in the post with the slightest of angles to the rim, you might as well give the Illini two points before the ball even leaves his hand.
Look for redshirt junior forward Jacob Grandison to take on some of the load of Dosunmu’s absence. The Oakland, Cal. native has seen 15 plus minutes of floor time in seven of his last 10 games, and that streak will likely only increase on Saturday without Dosunmu. Grandison (6’6”, 205 lbs) is physically similar to Dosunmu (6’5”, 200 lbs), but obviously doesn’t see nearly the volume of his star counterpart. The name of Grandison’s game is efficiency over volume, as he shoots over 50% from the field but has only scored in double-digits three times this season. Two of those double-digit scoring games have come in Illinois’ last three games.
Freshman Andre Curbelo could also see some increased burn on Saturday afternoon. The Puerto Rican point guard has been touted as the future of Illinois’ program, but it didn’t seem like it against the Badgers. Against D’Mitrik Trice and Trevor Anderson, Curbelo totaled zero points in eight minutes with four turnovers. There have been growing pains for the flashy freshman, but his most recent game may have been his best yet: 10 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists against Nebraska. However, he also had five turnovers in that game; with the flash of his game comes ball security concerns as well.
The Badgers come into this game after a much-needed demolition of Northwestern. After two straight home losses against top-ten teams, the Badgers clearly needed to regroup on the offensive end. The underperforming Wildcats provided the perfect opportunity for Wisconsin to start cooking again, which is exactly what they did in their 68-51 win that saw five players score in double figures. They also shot 86% from the free throw line, a number that can’t be underestimated going into tournament play.
It wasn’t all sunshine and roses in Evanston, though; the Badgers once again shot under 40% from deep and just 41% from the field. Plus, the nightmare season of Nate Reuvers continued as he went 1-6 from the field with two points. That may be acceptable against a team like Northwestern that won a single Big Ten game in the 2021 calendar year, but it won’t slide against a well-coached team like Illinois.
The Badgers take on the Illini at home at 1 p.m. on Saturday, where they will need veterans to step up on their senior day. The game will be aired on ESPN.