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Illinois Basketball: 4 Thoughts Before Iowa



Coming off an up and down 72-56 win over Nebraska, Illinois will travel to face Iowa on Saturday. The Illini are 10 games over .500 at 16-6 and have gone from 0-3 in conference to 7-4.

1. No Big Deal

Over the last few years, the Big Ten has been the land of the big man. No two schools know this better than Iowa and Illinois, who enjoyed the services of Luka Garza and Kofi Cockburn respectively. Garza won player of the year and was an All American for two years. Cockburn was also an All American twice and won a Big Ten regular season and tournament title in his time in the Orange and Blue before going pro. This will be the first matchup there isn’t an All American at center for either team since the 2019 season. Even without the behemoths on the block, Illinois has to continue to play in the paint. Iowa is 13th in the conference in opponent 2pt FG percentage, and last overall defensively.

2. Good versus Good

Although they give up the most points per game in the conference, Iowa scores the most. The Hawkeyes average an eye watering 84 points per game at home against Power Five competition. They have put up 90+ against Indiana, Michigan and most recently Rutgers so far. They have a number of skilled offensive players, and Fran McCaffery knows how to put together a top half of the conference offensive scheme. On the other side, Illinois comes into the game with the game with the third best defense in the league in points allowed, and second in KenPom defensive efficiency behind Rutgers. The Illini are stocked with long, athletic defenders, and Coleman Hawkins did as good a job as anyone against Hawkeyes’ leading scorer Kris Murray’s older brother Keegan last year. Iowa and Illinois are one and two in the conference in KenPom’s Tempo stat. I think the Illini would like the game to be in the 70s and avoid to a true shootout.

3. Heating Up

The Illini have currently won seven of their last eight games and have positioned themselves alone in second place in the conference going into February. While January had some tricky fixtures and a congested schedule, Illinois didn’t play a team in the top four of the conference. That will change on Saturday, as Iowa currently leads a six-way tie for fourth. As I said, Iowa can light it up at home and has done it to the best defenses in the conference. With how Purdue is winning it seems like every game at this point is a must win to give yourself a chance at regular season hardware. Although beyond a banner extending the five-game winning streak over Iowa is quite the prize itself.

4. Battle Tested

Early in the year, the Illini struggled on the road. Losing to Maryland and Northwestern, they often couldn’t respond to opponents runs. Recently on the road against Wisconsin in a similarly rabid environment they countered a Wisconsin run to take a second half lead with a haymaker of their own, putting the game away. Iowa’s offense makes them a much different animal, and I would expect multiple runs from the Hawkeyes. When those runs happen, this team has to lean on their experiences so far this year. It’s now February, and the window for things to be figured out is closing. Like any great crowd, Iowa’s home court advantage can influence the officiating. Illinois has to be sure to not let anything affect their execution. Hawkins and Dain Dainja have to play smart and not get wrapped up in the crowd especially on defense.

With a win the Illini would go into their next game against Minnesota in second at worst and add a very strong bullet to their resume. There are very few easy wins in the Big Ten, and on a national stage Saturday I’d be ready for a 40-minute fight.

Brian is a former sports writer for the Daily Illini who has been covering Illinois Basketball for over 5 years. Brian is now the lead basketball reporter for Armchair Illini, the go-to source for Illinois athletics news. He has had work published on Bleacher Report, Verbal Commits, USA Today and more.