Illinois is back in sole possession of first place in the Big Ten after handily beating Wisconsin 66-51 last night. Considering how ridiculously brutal it has been for road teams in the Big Ten so far this season, the Illini victory in Madison puts the team at a distinct advantage over the rest of the conference. Illinois has the first and, so far, only quality conference road win of anyone in the Big Ten. While Michigan and Iowa have shown to be adept at defending their respective home courts, they have yet to prove anything on the road. The Illini have a stronger unit than either of those teams (despite their loss at Iowa), so Dee Brown’s Crew is in a great position.
Two items that I pointed out about the Illini after the Braggin’ Rights Game over a month ago were showcased last night: stifling defense and putrid free throw shooting. Illinois is as good as any team defensively in the country this year and they completely took Wisconsin out of their comfort zone. The defensive intensity for the team is so high that the Illini will be in position to win games even when the offense is down.
What continues to worry me, however, is how poorly Illinois performs from the charity stripe. We’re fortunate that a 9-for-16 free throw shooting performance didn’t bite us against a fundamentally sound Wisconsin team. If we expect to go anywhere in March, there cannot be these types of lapses at the free throw line. Until the Illini improve upon this area, we are completely ripe to suffer an unexpected upset.
Still, I’m happy to see Jamar Smith get back into his shooting groove over the past week. As long as Illinois is able to spread out on offense, we’re going to find good shots both in the post and on the perimeter. All in all, this was a great win for the Illini over a solid Badger team. Let’s just hope that we can get sufficient improvement in the free throw area to take this Illinois club to elite status.