MADISON, Wis. — Maybe there’s a clunker in the cards every 18 games or so.
Or maybe there’s never a good excuse for one.
Illinois can now debate the subject as something of an expert after falling completely flat Saturday in a 74-51 loss to Wisconsin at the Kohl Center.
For the 12th-ranked Illini, about everything that could go wrong did in an ugly first half that didn’t produce the team’s first basket until the 12:34 mark. Illinois fell behind 14-0, 27-7 and trailed 39-19 at the break. It was a half that included poor shooting, poor rebounding, foul trouble and an injury that sent starting forward Tyler Griffey to the locker room with a cut on his forehead.
And while Illinois (14-4, 1-3 Big Ten) did show more spark in the second half, it was far too little, far too late.
Out-rebounded 43-24 and with just two assists in 18 baskets, coach John Groce said this performance throws open the doors to potential lineup changes.
“I thought (Wisconsin) dominated every facet of the game, especially in the first half,” Groce said. “The thing that was most disappointing to me is that their competitive spirit was better than ours at the start of the game. That’s unacceptable. That’s not what we’re about.
“We were down by 16 twice at Hawaii and came back. We were down at Gonzaga and came back. But today we didn’t have it. That falls on me and the captains. I didn’t like our mindset.”
Because center Nnanna Egwu got in early foul trouble, and because Griffey’s injury required stitches above his left eyebrow, Groce had to reach deeper than normal into his bench. The result was 19 minutes of playing time for seldom-used forward Mike Shaw, who ended up being the only player who earned his coach’s praise.
“Their effort and competitive spirit overmatched ours, and we have to figure it out pretty quick,” Groce said. “We’ll evaluate the film as best we can and make what adjustments we need to make in all areas.
“The one guy I know played his butt off for all 19 minutes was Mike Shaw. He played like his head was being held under water, and that’s what I liked.”
Shaw had two points, three rebounds and one of Illinois’ two assists.
What Groce did not like was his team’s start to the game. Although Illinois committed just nine turnovers, three of them came in the first two minutes as Wisconsin (12-4 3-0) got rolling early. The Badgers made four of their first seven shots and took an 8-0 lead, then got consecutive 3-pointers from Jared Berggren and Ben Brust to build a 14-0 lead.
Illinois did not make its first basket of the game until Joseph Bertrand scored in the lane at the 12:34 mark.
The Wisconsin lead reached 34-9 and only a late flourish kept the Illini to within 20 at the half, 39-19.
It was a particularly rough game for Illinois’ Brandon Paul, the team’s leading scorer. He made just one of 11 shots and five of 10 free throws to finish with eight points, the first time this season he has failed to reach double digits.
“Mike (Bruesewitz) did a great job of chasing him,” Wisconsin point guard Traevon Jackson said. “I feel like we squeezed the court on him and made him take some contested shots.”
Jackson scored 14 points for the Badgers, second to the 15 points and 12 rebounds that Berggren managed.
Bruesewitz finished with eight points and seven rebounds and said holding Paul down was a top priority.
“He’s a great player,” Bruesewitz said. “To get him to shoot like that, we’ll take some credit. But it wasn’t his day, either.”
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan bumped into Groce in the hallway outside the post-game interview room and told Groce the Badgers had just played their best game of the season.
Remarkably, Wisconsin came into the game last in the Big Ten in both 3-point and free throw shooting.
But on Saturday, both percentages got a major boost.
Wisconsin made 10 of 23 3-pointers (43.5 percent), after coming in shooting 20.6 percent.
Egwu, Illinois’ sophomore center, was in constant foul trouble and was scoreless in 11 minutes.
Illinois returns home and plays Northwestern at 7:15 p.m., Thursday.