Preview: Iowa vs. Illinois

Story by Miles Klotz

Feb 7, 2017; Evanston, IL, USA; Illinois Fighting Illini guard Te'Jon Lucas (3) is guarded by Northwestern Wildcats guard Bryant McIntosh (30) during the first half of the game at Welsh-Ryan Arena. Mandatory Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Iowa basketball lost again on Sunday against Maryland, but for the first time in several games, there was hope. At least for a few minutes.

Iowa led the Terrapins, on the road, in the second half, something they had not done in a Big Ten game all season. There was some very questionable officiating that left the Hawkeyes without a coach for the second half and in foul trouble most of the game. Iowa still couldn’t defend and had trouble with long scoring droughts. But there was hope, and we haven’t seen that so far in Big Ten play.

Iowa has a real chance to grab a victory Thursday night when they visit Illinois at 7PM on Fox Sports 1. Iowa lost both games to Illinois last year, including a 12-point road loss last January that was the Illini’s only win in a 1-6 stretch, but Illinois has a new coach this season and is struggling to find its identity. Also winless (0-4) in Big Ten play, Illinois is in a transition period.

Despite this, the Illini are very close to Iowa in Ken Pomeroy’s advanced college basketball analytics, with Brad Underwood’s squad sitting at 86th in the country while the Hawkeyes are #88. Illinois is struggling, but a road game is no guarantees. The Illini have already beaten two Top 100 KenPom teams this season in DePaul and Missouri, and haven’t lost to a team outside of the Top 100.

Illinois runs a pretty balanced rotation, with nine different players seeing significant minutes. The team’s best player is big man Leron Black, a 6-foot-7 forward having a career year with 14.3 points per game with career high marks in shooting while leading the team in rebounding. Black will likely be assigned to guard Tyler Cook, which should be a fun matchup to watch. Michael Finke is a 6-foot-10 giant averaging double digits in scoring and will be a touch matchup inside.

A pair of freshman guards, Mark Smith and Trent Frazier, spearhead a balanced backcourt attack. Frazier, averaging 9.6 points a game, and Smith, putting up 8.1 points per contest, will be new faces to Hawkeye defenders, the start of Underwood’s own legacy in Champaign. Wright State graduate transfer Mark Alstork has not been what Illinois expected so far, but he was averaging 19 points a game at the mid-major level last year and can never be counted out for a breakout performance, such as when he dropped 17 in a one-point loss to Maryland last month. Aaron Jordan didn’t play much against Iowa last year but has broken out in 2017-18 and now averages a shade under ten points per game.

The Illini are much better defensively than on offense, ranking in the top 50 in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating, while sitting at 157 in offensive efficiency. This is one of the best defenses the Hawkeyes have faced all year – they have proven they can score, but nonetheless this will be a serious test. Illinois is one of the best teams in the country at generating turnovers, and Iowa turns the ball over a lot, so the Hawkeyes (in particular Jordan Bohannon) will have to focus heavily on ball security.

On the other side, this is a great game for the Hawkeyes to work on improving their putrid defense. After two straight games of allowing 90+ points to opponents, the Hawkeyes now rank 148th in defensive efficiency, the second-worst rating of Fran McCaffery’s tenure (only his second year was worse, and that team finished with 8 Big Ten wins). The Illini in particular are bad at shooting threes, and they don’t shoot a lot of them, so if the Hawkeyes can crowd the interior of the paint and force Illinois guards outside, they may have success. Lately Iowa has struggled to decide between a zone defense or a man-to-man defense, and have struggled to defend with either, so it will be interesting to see where Fran McCaffery goes in this one.

Prediction: Illinois wins, 71-64. Iowa’s first Big Ten win will have to wait a little longer. Illinois’ home court always gets pretty loud even when the team is bad, and Iowa couldn’t win there last year with a better team. Iowa plays Rutgers in a week – that should be their best chance for a Big Ten win this season.

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