The absence of Jon Leuer for nine games may have cost Wisconsin a chance to win a share of the Big Ten title.
The way Leuer’s playing now, though, the 13th-ranked Badgers should be filled with confidence as they pursue their second tournament championship in three years.
In their second meeting in a week, Wisconsin takes on Illinois in the Big Ten tournament quarterfinals at Conseco Fieldhouse on Friday, with the Illini desperately needing a deep run to help their chances at an NCAA bid.
Wisconsin (23-7) beat Illinois 72-57 in Champaign on Sunday, led by 20 points from Leuer. The Badgers held a 40-30 rebounding advantage, including 17 offensive boards that led to 16 second-chance points.
Leuer has totaled 38 points on 16 of 22 shooting the last two games after averaging 9.3 points in his first three back from a broken wrist. Wisconsin went 6-3 in his absence, but finished a game out of first place at the end of the regular season.
“Leuer’s obviously a great player,” Illinois’ Bill Cole said. “He’s a big difference in their team.”
The Badgers have won four straight and the last three by an average of 24.7 points. They have held opponents to 47.7 points and 36.0-percent shooting during that span.
This is the second consecutive year Wisconsin enters as the No. 4 seed in the tournament. It lost to Ohio State in the quarterfinals last season after defeating Illinois to win the tournament in 2008.
While the Badgers are trying to add to their resume in anticipation of an NCAA bid, the Illini are in desperation mode after losing five of six.
Illinois (18-13) beat Wisconsin 63-56 in Madison on Feb. 9 - a game Leuer sat out - but has struggled since. The Illini have averaged 57.2 points and shot 37.4 percent in the last six games - four against ranked opponents. It likely will need a deep run in Indianapolis to have any chance at an NCAA tournament bid.
“Now, we put ourselves in a major bind,” coach Bruce Weber said. “We’ve got to go to the tournament and do some damage if we’re going to have any chance for postseason.”
Weber and the Illini are looking for Demetri McCamey to step up after a frustrating performance Sunday. The junior scored 27 points in the win at Madison, but was held to 11 in Champaign and got into an altercation with Weber.
After committing a turnover and an intentional foul with less than six minutes remaining, McCamey and Weber exchanged words on the sidelines after McCamey bumped Weber’s shoulder while walking to the bench. Weber angrily pulled him back into the huddle before sitting McCamey for almost three minutes.
“I was frustrated and being competitive,” McCamey said. “People blew it out of proportion as me trying to disrespect Coach Weber, but … Coach Weber knew where I was coming from.”
McCamey, who was named first-team All-Big Ten this week, has struggled down the stretch, averaging 11.2 points in the last six games while shooting 34.8 percent. He was 2 of 8 from the field Sunday.
The Illini have a good history in the conference tournament with the best winning percentage (22-10) of any team. They lost to Purdue in the semifinals last season after Wisconsin knocked them out of the tournament the previous two years.