Wisconsin has been impressive in climbing toward the top 10 even though it is still without its best inside player. A victory on Tuesday night could give the 11th-ranked Badgers a share of first place in the Big Ten.
Their opponent also has its eyes on that spot.
Illinois will go for a fifth consecutive victory and a second straight over a ranked foe as the Illini try to become the first visitors to win at the Kohl Center this season.
These teams are both responsible for tightening the top of the Big Ten standings. Michigan State was unbeaten in conference play before a 67-49 loss at Wisconsin last Tuesday, and Illinois handed the then-No. 5 Spartans a 78-73 defeat four days later.
The Badgers (18-5, 8-3) and Illini (16-8, 8-3) are now among three teams tied for second, and the winner of Tuesday’s game could ascend further if Michigan State loses to sixth-ranked Purdue later in the evening.
It seemed unlikely for either team to approach the conference lead as recently as a few weeks ago, when Wisconsin learned it would be without standout junior Jon Leuer for an extended stretch due to a wrist injury.
However, the Badgers have proceeded to go 6-2 without their 6-foot-10 forward, following up the lopsided win over the Spartans with a 62-44 road victory over Michigan on Saturday. They surged to a 14-point halftime lead after shooting 9 of 13 from 3-point range in the first half, led by a combined 7 of 9 from guards Trevon Hughes, Jordan Taylor and Jason Bohannon.
“That’s how we play,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “We’re opportunistic. … We shot exceptionally well when we got looks in the first half.”
Wisconsin also continued to play suffocating defense, holding an opponent under 50 points for the 10th time. The Badgers are 10-0 when that happens, and they lead the conference in scoring defense (56.2 points allowed per game).
“When you’re on the road in the Big Ten you’ve got to defend,” Bohannon said. “Our defense was pretty good when we needed it.”
Illinois remains unranked, but has followed a three-game losing streak with four consecutive victories.
The first three wins came over the Big Ten’s worst teams, but Saturday’s victory may have given the Illini a major confidence boost even though the Spartans were playing without standout point guard Kalin Lucas.
Guard Demetri McCamey stepped up for Illinois, notching his first double-double of the season with 22 points and 11 assists. The junior is averaging 17.9 points on 51.1 percent shooting in eight games since returning to the starting lineup. He came off the bench for two games last month.
“I told McCamey he’s twice the player he was when he played at our place,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said, referring to Illinois’ 73-63 win Jan. 16. “He’s so much of a different player.”
McCamey scored 25 points in Illinois’ 64-57 home win over Wisconsin on Jan. 24, 2009, but that remains the Illini’s only victory in their last seven meetings with the Badgers. Illinois shot 32.8 percent in a 63-50 loss in Madison in the most recent matchup Feb. 5, 2009.
That victory began Wisconsin’s current 18-game home winning streak, which is only the third-longest under Ryan. Then-No. 1 Illinois snapped the Badgers’ 38-game home winning streak with a 75-65 victory Jan. 25, 2005.