MADISON, Wis. — In the hallways of the Kohl Center on Saturday, a smiling Bo Ryan crossed paths with a dejected John Groce, embraced him and said, “That’s the best team we’ve played all season, we’ve seen it (on tape).”
Surely the Wisconsin coach, known for his above-average sense on humor, wasn’t being serious. Not after his Badgers had just delivered a 74-51 beatdown to Groce’s 12th-ranked Illini in front of 17,249.
This one was decided in the first six minutes when the Badgers jumped ahead 14-0.
“I thought they dominated every facet of the game, especially in the first half,” Groce said. “The thing that was most disappointing to me was at the end of the day their competitive spirit was better than ours to start the game. That is unacceptable, that’s not what we’re about.”
The Illini set season lows for points and made three-pointers (2 for 14).
Brandon Paul, who entered the game second in the Big Ten in scoring (18.6 ppg), was held to single digits in scoring for the first time this season with eight points.
The Badgers outrebounded Illinois (14-4, 1-3) by 19 and had nearly as many offensive boards (18) as the Illini had total (24).
It wasn’t Paul’s day. It wasn’t Illinois’ day.
“How do you play the No. 1-ranked team in the country in offensive rebounding this past Wednesday (Minnesota) and get 74 percent back and then have that type of effort on the glass today?” Groce asked. “It’s in there, we didn’t have it today.”
So Ryan wasn’t completely off the mark with his comment to Illinois’ first-year coach. This is, after all, the same team that won at ninth-ranked Gonzaga after falling behind big early. It’s the same team that blitzed 14th-ranked Butler to win the Maui Invitational.
But the reason Groce was hired to replace Bruce Weber is Illinois was in need of a change in culture.
The toughness had disappeared. And except for two games this season — a loss at Purdue and Saturday — Illinois has had it.
The key now is to not let the bad feelings from the latest setback snowball. If they do, with the Big Ten featuring five other ranked teams — not including Illinois — the losses could begin to pile up for the Illini, who got a game-high 16 points from D.J. Richardson and 12 from Joseph Bertrand (seven rebounds).
Jared Berggren had the first double-double of his career for the Badgers (15 points, 12 rebounds) while Traevon Jackson (14 points), reserve Sam Dekker (13) and Ryan Evans (10) also reached double figures.
“One thing I’ve learned about playing in this league is when you don’t play very well and you play a good team and they play really well, you get the result you got today,” Groce said.