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January 7, 2014

Walking the beat: Illinois





The No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers will welcome another ranked opponent to the Kohl Center on Wednesday night, albeit an unexpected one. Not many people would have predicted that the Illini would win 13 of their first 15 games to start the season, but the Illini are starting to get a little more respect from national media members. Illinois broke in to the latest AP poll at No. 23 following an overtime win over Indiana and another conference win over Penn State in the last week.

It's a good story for Illinois and second-year head coach John Groce, who finished his first year in Champaign 23-13 (8-10 Big Ten). But we still don't know a whole lot about the Illini, even though they are currently part of a five-way tie for first place in the Big Ten.

Luckily for us Brad Sturdy knows the Illini pretty well, and answered a few of my questions before Wednesday night's game. Brad's answers are included below, and you can see more of his work at OrangeandBlueNews.com.

Illinois is 13-2 and 2-0 in the Big Ten to start the season, but what do we really know about the Fighting Illini? Is Illinois better in year two under John Groce than they were last year?

Brad Sturdy: The only thing we really know about Illinois is that Ray Rice is very good, and they will compete until the end of every game. Defensively, they are much improved because the guys now understand the system much better in the 2nd year. This is a much tougher team mentally and physically than they were a year ago, even if they may lack the talent they had last year. The program is on very solid footing right now and the players know what to expect from each other and the coaching staff. That said, they aren't an overly talented group.

When the Illini are on offense what should Badgers fans pay attention to? Who are the key scoring threats, and how do they get the job done when things go well?

BS: Rice has scored in every game, and he is almost impossible to stop if he gets his shoulder by the defender. He's shooting better from the perimeter as well. Tracy Abrams struggled to start the season but has been very good of late. Joseph Bertrand is the 3rd option, and he will make some highlight reel plays at times. Those 3 guys have been consistent offensively of late, but when they get 3 point shooting from Jon Ekey and a solid offensive game from Nnanna Egwu they are very good. Those guys are the guys that take them from alright to very good.

When things don't go well for the Illini on offense is there a general reason why? What kind of team does this Illinois team struggle against?

BS: Illinois is streaky from the perimeter. They have games when they just don't shoot it well. They were 2-17 from 3 against Indiana but gutted out the win. In those games it is much more difficult for them to score. They aren't as good against zones because of that and the fact that a very good zone, or sagging man to man, can shut off some of their ability to penetrate the defense.

Which game is Illinois' best win of the season, and why? Conversely, which of their two losses hurts more?

BS: Missouri is a good win against a ranked opponent, and was a bit of a turning point as they were able to handle a crazy atmosphere and win a close game. The Oregon loss out West isn't a bad loss, so the bad loss is at Georgia Tech, where they blew a 60-48 lead and lost 68-64. Tech isn't very good, and Illinois was in a great position to win that game on the road.

Finally, what do you expect to see out of the Illini down the stretch? Is this a team capable of contending for a Big Ten title, or is their ceiling somewhat different?

BS: If this team finishes in the top 6 of the league and makes the NCAA tourney, it's been a very good year. Anything better would be very surprising, but obviously the game Wednesday night will tell us a lot more about them. I think a 9-9 finish would be a good finish for Illinois, and at 2-0 they are off to a good start.

For more Wisconsin Badgers news, notes and discussion, follow John on Twitter.


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