CHAMPAIGN — Nationally speaking, what happens today at Assembly Hall might not be considered “The Big Game.”
That will take place when the Super Bowl commences three hours after Illinois and Wisconsin tip off in a Big Ten Conference basketball game.
But for an Illini team desperate to make a strong finish in the final 10 regular-season games, this is the only contest that matters.
“It’s huge,” sophomore guard Tracy Abrams said. “We’ve backed ourselves into a corner, and we have to fight our way out.”
Illinois is 2-6 in the league, and today’s game surely falls into the “must win” category if there is still going to be an NCAA Tournament push.
And while Illinois has been fighting through its own struggles, Wisconsin arrives having lost three of its last four while enduring the same kind of shooting slump Illinois has battled to shake.
The Badgers have failed to reach 50 points in any of the last three games and during that stretch they have shot 34.8 percent from the field. In a two-point home loss to Michigan State, Wisconsin made just
7 of 18 free throws. Ryan Evans, the team’s No. 2 scorer, has made 7 of his last 30 shots.
But still fresh on Illini coach John Groce’s mind is the 74-51 beatdown Wisconsin administered when Illinois visited Madison, Wis., on Jan. 12.
“We didn’t play very well and they were terrific,” Groce said Saturday. “I hope we’ve improved in a lot of areas since that particular game.”
Most recently, Illinois lost at Michigan State 80-75 Thursday, a game in which the Illini played well offensively but lost because of a dreadful start to the second half and defensive breakdowns throughout.
Groce has cracked the whip on defensive improvement leading into today’s game.
“We did some really good things on the offensive end,” Groce said. “We scored 75 points on 74 offensive possessions against a really good defensive club. Our shot selection was good. We moved the ball well. We really took care of the ball except for the first five minutes of the second half.
“But defensively we were not as good. We struggled to guard ball screens and we fouled too much. We have to clean some things up there. We want to play better defensively and that will be the emphasis (today).”
One bright spot at Michigan State was the play of sophomore Myke Henry, who although just 6-foot-4 is being used at power forward.
Henry scored 11 points and made meaningful plays that didn’t show up in the box score. Some of them were due to defensive hustle and if that continues, Groce will almost certainly find Henry more playing time.
“His story all year is that he has played an instrumental role in some big moments for us throughout the season,” Groce said. “But he has struggled to maintain a level of consistency. He knows that.
“He blocked a shot, he deflected two post entry passes that led to steals. He got on the floor one time. He was more active, he ran harder and cut harder. He has to have that edge to him all the time.”
Wisconsin has survived its biggest moment of crisis, a pre-season injury that ended the season of starting point guard Josh Gasser.
In his place, sophomore Traevon Jackson – the son of former Ohio State All-American and current broadcaster Jimmy Jackson – has stepped in and stabilized the point guard position for the Badgers.
“He has really developed and I told his dad that,” Groce said. “He’s really getting better and figuring out his role. He’s running the team and making plays at the end of the shot clock.
“He made big shots against us (on Jan. 12). He’s a tough kid and good defensively. I’ve been impressed with his progress.”
Groce said his players remain upbeat and resilient.
“(Friday’s practice) was pretty tough because I wanted to make a statement about our defense,” he said. “But I did show them some clips of what we did well on the offensive end.
“They still practice hard. We have a good attitude. We give good effort and guys have kept their heads up and plowed away. That’s how we want to do it.
“We can’t get any of (the losses) back at this point, so the focus is on getting better.”
After the Michigan State game, Abrams said he remains optimistic.
“We still have 10 games left,” he said. “There’s still plenty of time to do something positive.”