Jeff Huth's look at ... UI women at Wisconsin, 2 p.m. today
Illinois (12-8, 5-3 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Alexis Smith So. 5-9 7.8
G Ivory Crawford So. 5-10 13.2
G Amber Moore Jr. 5-11 13.1
G Adrienne GodBold Sr. 5-11 18.7
C Karisma Penn Sr. 6-2 18.7
FYI: Illinois has held four of its last six opponents to 62 or fewer points.
OFF THE BENCH
F Taylor Tuck So. 6-0 5.5
G McKenzie Piper Fr. 6-0 2.1
F Nia Oden So. 5-10 1.8
Wisconsin (10-11, 2-6 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Nicole Bauman Fr. 5-10 6.6
G Morgan Paige Jr. 5-9 17.1
G Tiera Stephen Sr. 5-7 6.1
G Jacki Gulczynski So. 6-1 11.5
F Cassie Rochel Jr. 6-4 6.8
FYI: Gulczynski has scored in double figures in her last 14 games, including 16 points Thursday against Penn State.
OFF THE BENCH
G Dakota Whyte Fr. 5-8 2.8
G Tessa Cichy Fr. 6-0 2.1
F Daria Kryuchkova Jr. 6-3 1.4
Site: Kohl Center (17,142), Madison, Wis.
Radio: WDWS 1400-AM; tape-delayed at 6 p.m. following the Illini-Wisconsin men’s basketball broadcast; Dave Loane (play by play) and Mike Koon (analyst)
Internet: Live stream on Big Ten Digital Network (link from www.fightingillini.com/allaccess); subscription required
Series: Illinois leads 32-31
FYI: Illini has lost its last five games at Wisconsin, only one of which was closer than 12 points.
Jeff Huth’s storylines
1 Safe to say there has been no bigger surprise during the Big Ten race so far this season than what transpired Thursday night at Madison, Wis. A Badgers team that entered with a 1-6 conference record knocked off No. 7 Penn State 63-61. In the process, the Badgers ended the Nittany Lions’ 11-game winning streak while handing Penn State its first loss in eight Big Ten games. Wisconsin had been in a 1-7 tailspin, but it wasn’t apparent against the Big Ten’s best team. For that, the Badgers can thank a career-high 33-point performance by junior guard Morgan Paige and a clutch play by Tiera Stephen. The redshirt senior’s offensive rebound and putback with six seconds left was the game-winner. “It was a war down the stretch,” said Illini coach Matt Bollant, who watched a tape of the game on Friday. “Wisconsin played really well in that second half and made plays — made some big shots.”
2 Bollant will be returning not only to the state where he made his coaching reputation, but to the campus where he once aspired to lead the women’s basketball program. In the early spring of 2011, Bollant interviewed for the vacant Badgers job. At the time, he had a four-year record at Wisconsin-Green Bay of 117-17, had produced three NCAA tourney qualifiers, and was coming off a run to the Sweet 16. Instead, the job went to Bobbie Kelsey, a four-year assistant with perennial power Stanford. Bollant, whose Green Bay teams went 3-2 vs. Wisconsin, admitted Friday that he initially was disappointed to have been passed over. “Sure, the human emotion; you react a little bit,” the first-year UI coach said. “But I told my Green Bay players right away, I was in such a great situation there that I just felt like it wasn’t God’s will, and whatever God’s will is, that’s what I want to do. We went on to win 31 games the next year. I got a chance to coach great kids. And it led to a great opportunity here (at Illinois).” Meanwhile, Kelsey’s first Badgers team finished 9-20 last season — the program’s first losing record in six years.
3 For Illinois, today marks the beginning of the second half of the Big Ten race. Halfway through their 16-game conference schedule, the Illini are 5-3 and one of five teams tied for third place in a monumental standings logjam. There’s still a long way to go, but a first-division finish — something that seemed unthinkable entering the season — is hardly farfetched now. Bollant points to the fact that Illinois is 4-0 on the Big Ten road and that only one of its three conference losses hasn’t been close. “I think our confidence and our belief that we belong and that we can do well is definitely growing,” he said. Illinois already has matched its Big Ten win total of last season and is positioned for its highest conference finish in at least six years. Long-suffering Illini fans know that won’t take much doing. None of the previous five UI teams placed higher than a tie for eighth.
Prediction: Illinois 66, Wisconsin 60
If the Illini can pull off a win today, they’ll have gone 3-0 in a grueling seven-day stretch that twice took them on the road. Wisconsin’s stunning victory against Penn State did give us pause as we pondered this pick, but Illinois is coming off an impressive win, too — by 12 points against No. 24 Iowa. A victory today would give the Illini a season-high three-game winning streak. It’s a chance for Illinois to prove it’s more than a two-steps-forward, one-step-back team. (N-G record: 12-8).