After a thrilling overtime win over Northwestern, Illinois advanced in the Big Ten Tournament to take on the Iowa basketball team tonight in Chicago.
The last time these two teams faced, it was not pretty for the Illinois Fighting Illini. The Iowa basketball team jumped out to a 10-point lead in the first ten minutes of play and never relinquished the lead from that point forward. Three Hawks scored 20 or more points, and Iowa couldn’t miss from behind the arc shooting a ridiculous 71.4%.
Moreover, their defense showed up that night (for most of the game), Fran’s constantly changing defensive alignment befuddled the young Illinois Fighting Illini. Illinois’ top three scorers shot just 15 of 42 for 38 points including 4 of 17 from three-point.
After that bad loss to the Iowa basketball team though, Illinois hit their stride so to speak winning 5 of their next 7 games including a 5-point victory over the #1 seed in the Big Ten Conference Tournament Michigan State.
Led by star freshman Ayo Dsounmu and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, the Fighting Illini present a unique and different threat to the Iowa basketball team then they saw before.
This team is beginning to come into its own and former three-star forward Bezhanishvili is hot right now after tearing up Northwestern to the tune of 26 points on 12 of 15 shooting in last night’s win in the opening round of the Big Ten Men’s Conference Tournament.
What scares me though is their commitment to small-ball. Iowa’s size and length can cause issues for smaller teams, but only if they play into that game. Against Ohio State, however, we saw a small-ball lineup rip Fran’s defense to shreds. More upsetting is that it basically takes Luka Garza out of the game as he can’t match up with those smaller, quicker guys nearly as easily.
Illinois’ starting five over the last five games consists of four guys 6’5” or under plus the 6’9” Bezhanisvhili. Iowa’s starting five, meanwhile, consists of four guys 6’5” or over. Illinois does have one tall piece in their puzzle which is senior Adonis De La Rosa, but he plays just 8.8 minutes a game, and against Iowa, head coach Brad Underwood would be wise to not play him often as that would strengthen the case to keep Garza in.
One thing the Hawks will need to be wary of when facing Illinois this evening is their defensive energy. The Fighting Illini play mostly man defense and they are adept at swiping the ball from opponents and limiting the number of personal fouls that traditionally come along with man defense. Against Iowa, they committed just 18 fouls, and the Hawks shot only 16 free throws.
That all being said, the Iowa basketball team has the superior team here. They showed in the first matchup against Illinois earlier this season, and with a four-game slide in the process right now, this is the perfect opportunity for the Hawks to right the ship and gain some momentum before taking on Michigan.
Of importance too, winning this game will help for a variety of reasons (momentum, actually advancing past the second round in the Big Ten Tournament, etc), but most importantly, this game is currently considered a quadrant three game for the Hawks. If Iowa were to lose, it would be the biggest blemish to date on their NCAA Tournament resume.
Tip-off for this game is scheduled tentatively for 825 PM Central Standard Time (it could be pushed back depending on the game before it), and it will be aired on the Big Ten Network. As of right now, ESPN is giving the Hawks a 70.8% chance of winning and KenPom is giving the Hawks a 66% chance of winning.