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Unbeaten Illini threaten Badgers' home streak


Jan. 24, 2005
Something's gotta give during the Big Ten showdown in Madison, Wis., on Tuesday night. The Kohl Center will be the center of the basketball universe as the Wisconsin Badgers host the No. 1-ranked Illinois Fighting Illini (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).

Wisconsin (13-3, 4-1 Big Ten) is riding a 38-game home winning streak, while Illinois (19-0, 5-0 Big Ten) is one of three undefeated teams left in Division I college basketball, along with a pair of surprises, Duke and Boston College. The Eagles have stunned people with a great start. Coach Al Skinner is underappreciated on a national level.

Why shouldn't Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan smile? His Badgers have won 38 straight at home ... but unbeaten Illinois looms Tuesday (ESPN, 7 p.m. ET).
And who would have believed that Duke would go without an L this far into the season? Remember, the Blue Devils lost Luol Deng, now with the Chicago Bulls, who entered the 2004 NBA draft after his freshman year. Plus, recruit Shaun Livingston jumped straight from high school to the NBA.

While those two unbeatens have been surprising, coach Bruce Weber's Illini have built huge leads and dominated against ranked squads like Gonzaga, Wake Forest and Cincinnati. Yes, there was a near-stumble against a tough Iowa team, but Illinois was able to survive and move on.

The success of Illinois starts with the backcourt. Deron Williams is big, strong and physical. Point guard Dee Brown has tremendous quickness and makes the big plays, like he did late against the Hawkeyes. Then there's Luther Head, who is underrated nationally. Head is athletic and can stroke the 3-pointer. He had 25 points, six rebounds and a key driving layup against Iowa.

Weber also has a solid frontcourt with James Augustine and Roger Powell capable of putting up 20 points on any given evening.

The Illini are focused as they defend their Big Ten title. Illinois does a great job defensively, as opponents like Chris Paul, Justin Gray, Jason Maxiell and Ronny Turiaf can attest.

Illinois will face a Wisconsin team that is system-oriented. Bo Ryan is among the nation's most underappreciated coaches, along with BC's Skinner and Charlotte's Bobby Lutz.

Mike Wilkinson, a 6-foot-8 senior, can score from the perimeter and the interior. He's also a strong rebounder, and he posted big numbers against Michigan (28 points, 15 rebounds, 9-of-11 field goals). Wilkinson has had five double-doubles this season. Wilkinson will have to have his A-game against the Illini.

The Badgers control tempo as well as anybody. Their system is perfect for the way they play — they have an Ivy League mentality while playing in a scholarship environment. Wisconsin also feeds off the energy of the crowd at Kohl Center.

Wisconsin's players care about winning as a team. There is no agenda, and that's how you build a program looking for a school-record seventh straight NCAA Tournament trip.

It's simple to analyze Wisconsin's plan for this contest. Control the pace of the game, run off some time on each possession, keep the crowd in the game and defend. The Wisconsin defense plays as a team — it isn't about individuals, it's about working together as a unit.

Something's gotta give: Will it be Illinois' undefeated season or Wisconsin's home winning streak?
The offense is usually in rhythm, looking for good shots and waiting until they are available.

That patience is a plus, and it drives opposing defenses crazy because they have to work hard. If you take good shots and protect the basketball, you always have a chance to win.

Texas Tech coach Robert Montgomery Knight told me recently that a team has a better chance of rolling up a big winning streak if it doesn't just run, press and shoot. Those teams become vulnerable on nights when they're defended well and their shots aren't falling.

Wisconsin can hang with you and then make the big play, as was the case against Michigan State. Wisconsin rallied to score the last eight points and pulled out a 62-59 win.

Will that be enough against an athletic Illinois team? The Illini might have been looking ahead to this contest when they struggled against Iowa, not to take anything away from the Hawkeyes. I firmly believe that Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Co. have been thinking Badgers, Badgers, Badgers, baby!

Illinois has had its share of problems at Wisconsin, though the Illini gave the Badgers their biggest scare of the current 38-game home winning streak. In March 2003, the Illini fell 60-59 in Madison.

It will be an incredible Tuesday night at Kohl Center. I can't wait to get there to call that game — it should be something special, baby! Something's gotta give: Will it be Illinois' undefeated season or Wisconsin's home winning streak?

Dick Vitale coached the Pistons and the University of Detroit before broadcasting ESPN's first college basketball game in 1979. Send a question to Vitale for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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