Illini basketball

Kohl Center: Illinois’ Other Home Away From Home

Supposedly, Wisconsin’s Kohl Center is one of those Mecca-like centers of college basketball, where visiting teams simply don’t win.

That’s crap.

Illinois wins there a lot. And now that the program is back on track, it’s time to start winning at Kohl again.

The formula for beating Wisconsin, since Bo Ryan took over the program, has remained relatively simple. The fact that Bo Ryan is now regarded as an elite coach, and Wisconsin the top program in the B1G, tells you that beating Wisconsin is hard to do.

Does that dichotomy seem weird?

It shouldn’t. The basis for Ryan’s legend is his understanding of numbers. He recruits players who can replicate those numbers. It has to do with shooting percentages, especially among his bigs. It has to do with posting abilities, especially among his smalls. But it also has to do with a defense that prioritizes spacing and percentages over guarding opponents.

Bo Ryan’s defense may be good at defending the arc. It may be good at switching. I don’t subscribe to KenPom, and I’m probably not smart enough to understand the metrics.

I do know how Illinois beat Bo at Kohl in 2005, 2006 and 2010. Every time, it was jump-shooting that beat the Badgers.


2005 may have been Bo’s best team. Unfortunately for the Badgers, Illinois was super that year. Even so, the Illini needed long-range magic to hold off the Badgers, both at Kohl and in Champaign.

At Kohl it was Jack Ingram. In Champaign it was Dee Brown.

Yes, Luther Head was the top scorer in both 2005 games. But it was the X-factor of Jack Ingram’s unscouted range that sealed a close win.  In Champaign, Dee connected on 4-of-6 from downtown Tolono.  Bo’s defense was great that afternoon, but Bo’s defense didn’t follow Dee off campus. They may have protected the arc, but Dee was shooting from NBA range. Bo just kinda shook his head, and threw his hands in the air. How, really, can you guard that?


Rich McBride’s greatest Illini moment may have been a statistically middling game in which he played exceptional defense, and did the little things. Nobody remembers that game. From the fans’ persepctive, the 2006 game at Kohl was Rich McBride’s shining hour.

Illinois Continues Recent Mastery of Badgers was the headline from the Washington Post.


The 2010 win was thoroughly unexpected, and a cake walk.

Demetri McCamey and Mike Tisdale ran a pick-n-pop to which Wisconsin never acclimated, because Bo Ryan’s defense can’t do something as simple as adjust to two dudes making short passes and hand-offs at the top of the key.

Tisdale finished 8-of-11 from the floor. McCamey was 3-of-4 from three, and 11-of-17 overall. Wisconsin picked its poison on every occasion. It killed them.

The Badgers just flexed in their stances, and waited, as Tisdale and McCamey dropped bombs. When a defender challenged McCamey, he dumped to Tisdale for a jump-shot. When the defender stayed home, McCamey busted a three. It was textbook easy. All those two Illini had to do was make their shots.

I didn’t use The Maginot Line as a title for another couple of years, but it would have been perfect for that win at Kohl. Bo never adjusted, and the faithful didn’t even seem to notice.  As McCamey’s threes, and Tisdale’s long twos rained down, they sat frozen as if they were as systemically locked as their coach.

That’s Bo’s way. He plays his system, and it usually works.

Before the three-point line, long range shooting was more of an art. Pete Maravich may be the most obvious example, historically, of a player who destroyed great defensive schemes simply by launching shots far beyond the outer periphery of a defense’s war zone. Eddie Johnson and Mark Smith shot long twos for Illinois. So did Anthony Welch. It’s always been a useful tool, and now you get an extra point for it.


Illinois is not a great three-point shooting team, but they’re better than the Badgers. They’re better than their opponents combined. They won’t have Aaron Cosby sandbagging the numbers at Kohl.

Some pick-n-pop from Nnanna Egwu and Ahmad Starks would be fun to watch. Kendrick Nunn has become an excellent passer. He could play that game, too. The question mark is Rayvonte Rice. He was hitting over 48% from deep when he broke his hand. He air-balled his lone attempt on Thursday. Can he find the range?

Defensively, Sam Dekker is vulnerable to physical play. It wouldn’t take a lot of Leron Black to get in Dekker’s head.

But despite all his hype, Dekker is the weak link among Wisconsin’s starters.  Frank Kaminsky gets all the press, and he’s got numbers to justify that praise. But it’s Nigel Hayes that you’ve got to watch for.

I’ve never been as excited to learn about an opponent’s under-hyped star-to-be as I was about Hayes, when I first saw him in person. He’s an incarnation of fundamental basketball. he makes it look so simple: Evade your man, then shoot from 10-to-14 feet out, and the ball automatically goes in. Nigel Hayes is the embodiment of the mid-range game in America.

On the bright side for Illinois fans: Leron Black could probably get in his head as well.

Leron Black didn’t play much against Michigan. He shouldn’t play much versus Wisconsin. Rather, he should play as long as it takes him to earn five fouls.

If you can take Dekker and Hayes out of the game, mentally, the rest is a matter of Frank Kaminsky’s and Josh Gasser’s shooting. If they have a bad afternoon (and if Illini defense can help them have a bad afternoon) The Illini have a chance.

Wisconsin is not a monolith. They’ve had plenty of close games. Purdue came close at Kohl, on a night when the Badgers shot 3-of-14 from deep. The Boilers connected on 51% of their shots that night, but attempted an astonishingly low five attempts from the arc (they connected on two). Great shooting won the ACC-B1G game for Duke, at Kohl. But the Blue Devils took few shots from three. They hit 65% on FGs. It’s not easily replicated, unless you’re good at hitting 65% of your shots.

The Badgers overtime win at Michigan provides an excellent statistical representation of their season, it its outcomes. The Badgers were slightly under their average for FGs, 3FGs and FTs, and it nearly cost them.

A close victory over Georgetown at Thanksgiving also demonstrates that an opponents’ good shooting is the Badgers weakness.

That should seem an obvious statement on its face, right? Of course good shooting wins games.

But if a team can open the floor against the Badgers, it’s pretty easy to beat them. The one snag for Georgetown was not getting to the free-throw line, and not making enough when they did get there. The Hoyas were 9-of-13 on the night. Luther Head was 12-of-13 in the home game of 2005.


The officiating crew of Chris Beaver, Terry Oglesby and Larry Scirotto did not get absolutely every call right on Thursday. There were a few over-the-back calls that should have been made, and some that shouldn’t.  They awarded Michigan the ball on a play when Nnanna Egwu distinctly did not touch it last.

But given the opportunity to make a game-changing call, Scirotto et al took a pass. Rayvonte Rice made a brilliant play, extremely smart, when he attempted a shot 91 feet from the basket with 3.4 seconds remaining. Ray campaigned for a ruling. So did John Groce. Frankly, it would have been the correct call, technically.

But unlike the mentally overmatched crew at Breslin, these guys understood the stakes.


#25 Southern Methodist beat Houston on Friday, in front of one fan. The official attendance was a paltry 3K, but you can see from the photo gallery that only a single attendee watched that game. Illini fans seee some gray spots in our crowd, but for the most part, State Farm Center presents a solid wall of orange.