MADISON, Wis. – Playing against Wisconsin at the Kohl Center is always difficult. This season is no different.
Actually, it is.
It’s perhaps even harder.
No. 23 Illinois found out Wednesday night, as the No. 4 Badgers extended their best start in team history with a breezy 95-70 victory.
Ben Brust led five Badgers in double figures with 18 points. Rayvonte Rice led the Illini with 19 points, and Joseph Bertrand added 18.
Illinois (13-3, 2-1 Big Ten) sputtered from the start to ultimately lose its fourth straight here, dating back to 2010.
Wisconsin (16-0, 3-0) used a 20-0 run to keep the Illini scoreless for more than 6 minutes, and build a 50-25 halftime lead.
Much has been made of the Badgers’ suddenly explosive offense this season, but their defense remains true to their trademark suffocation of opponents.
Only Bertrand and Rice had field goals for the Illini until Nnanna Egwu scored on a tip-in with 3 minutes, 11 seconds remaining in the first half. They missed layups and tip-ins and a variety of other shots to frustrate the few Illini fans in the crowd.
The Illini made only 10 of 36 shots in the first half (27.5 percent). Egwu (1-for-3), Tracy Abrams (1-for-8) and Jon Ekey (0-for-3) offered little assistance. Other than Rice and Bertrand, the Illini shot just 2-for-22 before halftime, a hole that was as tough to dig out of as if they were mired in a snow bank.
The Badgers connected on 57.1 percent of their shots before halftime, displaying their more uptempo style, multitude of scoring options, and seemingly effortless execution.
Illinois had a 13-5 run to start the second half, but the Illini had no answers guarding the Badgers’ Brust, Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky.
Illinois has not beaten a top-five program on the road in 25 years, since the Flyin’ Illini posted a 70-67 victory at No. 3 Indiana on March 5, 1989.
Neither team was expected to have such early success in the season. The Badgers were picked to finish fourth in the Big Ten, and Illinois was considered a middle-of-the-pack Big Ten team with such a young roster.
Count Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan as one who is not surprised at the Illini.
“They have a nice blend,” he said. “They have plenty of experience. The veterans have done a good job working with young players. I haven’t looked at Illinois as being young. They do have an injection of inexperience in the Big Ten [with transfer players Rice and Ekey]. I don’t think it’s a surprise because of the talent level.”
No. 4 Wisconsin 95, No. 23 Illinois 70
Star of the game: Ben Brust, Wisconsin, 18 points, 6 rebounds
Bertrand watch: 18 points (7-10 FGs, 2-2 3s, 2-2 FTs), 9 rebounds in 31 minutes
Up next: Illinois at Northwestern, 6:30 p.m. Sunday