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Illinois Basketball: 4 Thoughts Before Wisconsin



Coming off a sound win against Ohio State, Illinois looks to continue its winning ways Saturday at Wisconsin. In the previous matchup this year, the Illini took down the Badgers 79-69, their first of four straight wins. At the time they were desperate, 0-3 in conference play, now they are winners of five of six but will need to play desperate in a tough road environment. Here’s four things that could swing the balance of a pivotal Big Ten matchup.

1. Tyler Wahl’s Return

When the Badgers came to Champaign earlier this month, they were without leading scorer Tyler Wahl (12.8 PPG). Wahl by no means has the flashiest game, preferring to operate in the mid and low post. He has great patience and balance and will use those skills combined with his 6’9″ frame to get to his right hand where he finishes at a very high level. Wahl has played the last three games after injuring his right ankle on January 3rd against Minnesota. He hit right around his season average in those games but has multiple 20 point games this year. Coleman Hawkins started the game on OSU star Brice Sensabaugh, and I would wager he will be seeing a lot of Wahl.

2. Big on Big

In the Champaign edition of this matchup, the Badgers found success with Stephen Crowl posting up on Dain Dainja. Crowl finished with 20 points, although he did take 18 shots to get there. Dainja has shown the ability to really bother some frontcourt scorers (his defense against Derrick Walker comes to mind) but if there has been a weakness for him on that end it has been back to the basket bruisers. If nothing else Dain has shown to be a quick learner, we will see how much he learned from last time.

3. Welcome to Madison

Despite being only a season, it feels like forever since Illinois made the trek up north to the Kohl Center. One of the hardest places to win in the conference and the country, the Badgers only loss in conference there was a 4 point loss to Michigan State without Wahl. This will be the first time any player on Illinois has played in this arena with fans. The Illini are currently winless against teams outside the bottom two of the conference on the road. With a sellout crowd awaiting, this group will need to show their mettle when things get tough. Wisconsin will make a run at some point, will they rally like at Maryland, or fold like at Northwestern?

4. Same Faces New Places

After switching the starting lineup against Ohio State, the Illini rolled out a different first five for the fourth time this season. Sencire Harris started the first game against Wisconsin, but if Brad Underwood plays the same lineup from earlier this week Jayden Epps will be the starting point guard. Epps had a strong offensive outing against the Badgers in Champaign, with 15 points on just eight shots.  He also played 29 minutes to Harris’ 16. If he does get the start he will likely line up across from Wisconsin guard Chucky Hepburn. Hepburn is a bruising guard and occasionally took advantage of Epps with his girth in the lane. Epps will need to balance aggression with discretion and avoid early fouls. The Illini will need his ball handling and scoring in the hostile environment.

A win in Madison would take the Illini to 6-4 and keep them in the midst of a dense top four fight in the Big Ten. These are the games that make being in this conference so fun, will an Illini create a moment like Ayo did last time they faced fans in this building?

Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.