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Illini don’t get the message, fall to Wisconsin

(MCT) — CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Benching leading scorer Brandon Paul for Joseph Bertrand was designed to send a message. But the Illinois players’ mental voicemail apparently is full.

The last two days of practice had one objective for Illinois.

Compete with vigor on defense to earn a starting job.

Coach John Groce tinkered with the starting lineup in hopes of jolting to life a flatlining Illini defense but wound up with similarly disappointing results Sunday with a 74-68 loss to Wisconsin.

The Badgers completed a season sweep against the Illini, who have lost four straight at home for the first time since 2007-08 and are in a dizzying tailspin of six losses in seven games.

“You have to defend in this league,” Groce said. “We have a lot of holes in our defense right now that we have to patch.”

The Illini (15-8, 2-7 Big Ten) allowed the Badgers to set the tempo and shoot 42.9 percent, markedly more efficient than the 39.7 percent they were averaging in Big Ten play.

Illinois shot 54 percent in the second half, and Bertrand scored 15 of his 17 points after halftime. But Groce went back to the team’s inability to execute the defense, which he said had not changed much game to game since the start of the season.

“Our guys have to trust the system more,” he said. “We can’t be on five different islands. ... It should be here at this point to be honest. That’s the disappointing part.”

Asked if Paul’s poor offensive production Sunday was tied to not him starting, Groce said to ask Paul. He shot only 3-for-13, including 0-for-4 on 3-pointers, in 25 minutes.

“We said we have to make a statement,” Groce said of changing the lineup. “Everyone is held accountable.”

The Badgers (15-7, 6-3) entered the game having lost three of their last four.

Even with center Jared Berggren hampered by foul trouble, they found other options.

Sophomore Frank Kaminsky was coming back from an eye injury and scored a career-high 19 points with five rebounds.

Illini center Nnanna Egwu showed continued improvement with 14 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.

But few highlights existed for the Illini, who face Indiana on Thursday. The Hoosiers are expected to be No. 1 after beating Michigan.

If the Illini are going to find a life preserver, it had better start on the other side of the ball.

“It’s not about the offense right now,” Groce said. “It’s about the defense.”

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