Preview: Iowa vs. Illinois (Big Ten Tournament)

Story by Miles Klotz

NEW YORK CITY – Iowa’s men’s basketball season has a chance tonight to end in February for the first time since the 1930s.

It also has a chance to continue on and send the Hawkeyes to consecutive victories for the first time in 2018. To do that, Iowa will need to get past Illinois, the only Big Ten team they beat on the road this season, more than 1,000 miles away from home at Madison Square Garden.

Things have changed a lot since January 11, when Iowa came back from double digits to beat the Fighting Illini in overtime. Illinois has been much improved over the latter half of the Big Ten slate, and comes in winning two of their last four, including a home win over a potentially tournament-bound Nebraska team. Iowa doesn’t have that.

What Iowa does have is momentum. They led pretty much wire-to-wire at home on Sunday against Northwestern and have been in national news thanks to Jordan Bohannon’s selfless missed free throw to preserve Chris Street’s long-held record. They get a chance to play in one of the most historic arenas in the world. Things are looking a lot better than the last time these two teams met.

Still, however, this is a matchup that on paper looks difficult for the Hawkeyes. Northwestern was 13 of 25 from behind the arc on Sunday, a mark that shockingly was not enough to get them the victory. For most teams, it will be enough, especially Illinois, who are just near the top 100 in the nation in three point defense. Bohannon had a field day with the Wildcats’ leaky perimeter defense on Sunday, but the Illini are not going to allow him that much space.

Trent Frazier has been the Illini’s key guy all season long at the point, and he’s not a great matchup for Bohannon. He’s much more athletic than Bohannon and can beat him off the dribble quite easily, as evidenced by his 27 points and 7 threes he sank in the last matchup. 6-foot-7 junior Leron Black will likely be matched up on Tyler Cook. He’s been consistently productive all season for the Illini, and had 18 points in just 18 minutes in the last matchup due to foul trouble. If he stays out of trouble, it could be a death sentence for Iowa.

Another facet that makes this matchup unappealing for Iowa is Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s high-pressure defense – Illinois is fifth-best in the nation at forcing turnovers, according to KenPom. Iowa has had bad stretches where they cough the ball up too much and it ends up costing them the game. They’ll need to avoid that here, but it could be very difficult.

Prediction: Illinois wins, 82-80. This should be a close one, but the Illini have been playing much better than the last time these two teams met and are far more disciplined. If they stay out of foul trouble, this could end up being less close.

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