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January 7, 2014

'Explosive' Badgers provide biggest test for Illini

You all know the Bo Ryan Statistics. In his 12 full seasons as Wisconsin head coach, the Badgers have never missed the NCAA Tournament and have never finished worse than fourth place in the Big Ten.

Simply, Bo knows how to coach basketball.

"I think his continuity and stability within his program is great," said Illinois coach John Groce, whose team takes on Wisconsin in Madison on Wednesday. "He's had a lot of the same coaches, guys who have been with him and in some cases guys he's coached who are now his assistant coaches. He's red-shirted some guys. Guys get older in his program. They've played the same defenses, with some wrinkles to adapt to his personnel. They've play the same offense, with some wrinkles to adapt year-in and year-out. But the base foundation and structure of what they do at both ends has been the same year after year after year after year. I think with that comes the stability and continuity that allows you to build a program. I think that's what he's done, and he's done a great job."

Yet, critics point to a Bo/Badger ceiling. Wisconsin has made it past the Sweet Sixteen - which the program has made five times in 12 seasons - just once during Ryan's tenure (Elite Eight 2005).

But could Year 13 be the lucky one for Bo's Badgers? Wisconsin has sprinted (a rare word to describe the Badgers) to a 15-0 start - the Badgers best start to a season in 100 years - and rank No. 4 in this week's AP Top 25 Poll.

"I've watched them play a lot over the years," said second-year Illinois coach John Groce, who also scouted Wisconsin for four seasons as an assistant at Ohio State. "You'll certainly have to ask [Ryan] but from watching film, it looks like their most explosive offensive team that I've certainly watched for a Wisconsin game. That obviously makes them really dangerous."

Bo's best?

Don't be mistaken, this still is a Wisconsin team of the past. For the seventh time in 11 seasons, the Badgers rank in the top-12 of the country in defensive efficiency. For the 10th time in 12 seasons, the Badgers rank in the top-40 in offensive efficiency. For the sixth straight season, the Badgers rank in the top-5 in turnover percentage. For the eighth straight season, they rank in the top-30 in defensive rebound percentage.

"They do all the little things that allow you to be successful night in and night out," Groce said. "When you continue to do that year after year after year after year, it becomes your culture and the guys in the program just don't know any other way. The result of that is kind of what you're seeing."

But these Badgers are deeper, more athletic and more dangerous than most of the Badgers teams of the past five seasons. Whereas recent Badgers teams have been known for its slow-it-down pace and low point totals, the 2013-14 Badgers are averaging 75.1 points per game, the first Wisconsin team to average more than 69 points per game since 2007. Six different players have led the Badgers in scoring. Six of their top seven rotation players shoot better than 35 percent from three.

"They're very, very gifted offensively; very explosive offensively," Groce said. "They can hit two, three or four threes in the span of a minute or a minute and a half and go on spurts. That makes them really, really dangerous."

Ryan also has a kind of player he hasn't had in recent years. Sophomore forward Sam Dekker is Ryan's only five-star recruit since 2005 (Joe Krabbenhoft) and possibly a future NBA first-round draft pick.

"He's a mismatch problem from the standpoint that he has great versatility, a little like I talk about with Ray," Groce said. "It's very similar with Dekker. He can shoot threes. He moves well without the ball. He can play off the deck. He can deck it. He can drive it. He can get to the free-throw line. He gets you on the glass. He posts you up. He's just so versatile. I don't know if he has a weak area in his offensive game, so that I think makes him very unique. Then obviously he's a guy who's 6-6, 6-7 so not only does he not have a weakness offensively, he has that skill set with size. Those things make him very difficult to defend."

Dekker is surrounded by yet two more Wisconsin big men who can shoot, Frank Kaminsky and Duje Dukan, and three dangerous guards, Traevon Jackson, Ben Brust and Josh Gasser.

The Badgers have proven their worth against one of the toughest schedules in the country (No. 8), vaulting them to No. 1 in the RPI rankings. But are these Bo's best Badgers?

His first three teams - led by Kirk Penney, Devin Harris and Alando Tucker - went 35-13 in the Big Ten, winning two conference regular season titles and one conference tournament championship (beating Illinois in 2004). Tucker and Mike Wilkinson led the Badgers to its deepest tournament run of the Ryan era with an Elite Eight run in 2005.

The 2007-08 team - led by Brian Butch, Trevon Hughes and Marcus Landry - earned a No. 1 ranking along the road to winning a program-best 31 games and the Big Ten title, but that team lost to No. 7 seed UNLV in the second round of the tournament.

"Those teams were really, really good teams, but I don't know if he's had [that many] guys that shoot 35 percent plus from three," Groce said.

Often, observers deem a college basketball team's success based on the end-of-season three-week tournament rather than a five-month body of work. Ryan's program has been one of the most consistent programs in the country but hasn't made noise into April.

Opportunity for Illini

Groce's recently ranked Illini (No. 23 in the AP Poll) visit Madison on Wednesday. It's a no-lose, everything-to-gain opportunity for Illinois (13-2, 2-0 Big Ten), which has slightly surprised so far. Their strength, defense - Groce said Saturday's performance received its highest defensive grade out in two his two seasons at Illinois - will be tested. But Groce hopes his mobile posts Nnanna Egwu and Jon Ekey and ability to switch screens will give the Illini a boost versus the versatile Badgers.

"There's no question that if you have mobility at 4 and 5, then I think that helps," Groce said. "I do think our perimeter defenders are good perimeter defenders, but we have to rev that up tomorrow night. [Wisconsin is] our biggest test and biggest challenge in terms of what the statistics are saying.

"They continue to be that team that does not beat themselves. You have to beat Wisconsin if you're going to beat them."

Iowa, which led Wisconsin by 11 points at halftime of Sunday's game in Madison, found that out in a 75-71 loss. Wisconsin has established itself as a top-three team a loaded Big Ten, along with Michigan State and Ohio State, which has placed the Badgers among the nation's top-five in the rankings.

The Illini, who were expected by most to finish among the conference's bottom five teams, are simply trying to establish itself as an NCAA Tournament team and a top-half-of-the-Big-Ten team. While Wednesday's war with Wisconsin is worrisome - the Badgers are 190-18 (91.3 win percentage) at the Kohl Center under Ryan - it also provides Groce's team with a great opportunity.

"If you're a guy that has a winner's mindset or you're a champion, you love challenges; you love adversity," Groce said. "I think our group has really shouldered that, and we have a little toughness about us. So we understand it's a great challenge, but we're looking forward to that challenge."

Jeremy Werner is the co-host and Illinois reporter for the "Tay and J Show," which airs weekdays 3-6 p.m. on ESPN Radio 93.5 in Champaign-Urbana and streams online at espncu.com. You can contact him at jeremy@espncu.com or follow him on Twitter @WernerESPNCU

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