Iowa (16-5, 5-3) vs. Illinois (13-8, 2-6)
Date: February 1, 2014
Time: 6:30 p.m. CT
Location: Assembly Hall, Champaign, Ill.
Line: Iowa -4.5
In August 2011, Scott Dochterman at The Gazette ran a poll asking Iowa fans to vote for the team they loathe the most. Illinois won in a runaway, with more votes than any other five teams combined. Much of the animosity dates back to the 1990s, when Iowa and Illinois engaged in a brutal recruiting war that led Iowa assistant Bruce Pearl to secretly record phone calls with recruits and report violations to the NCAA. And, while recent recruiting skirmishes with Wisconsin have possibly moved the Badgers ahead of Illinois on the Iowa hit list, the animosity between the two programs remains palpable to fans of a certain era.
It is with that background that Iowa travels to Champaign Saturday for its first game of the season with the Illini. Iowa's struggles at Assembly Hall (discount double check THAT, State Farm Center) are well-known: The Hawkeyes have won just once there since 1987, a 78-72 victory in Tom Davis' last trip to Illinois in 1999. Steve Alford never won there. Todd Lickliter never won there. Fran has never won there.
Of course, it's rare that Iowa gets a shot at an Illinois team that has lost six conference games in a row, including an eight-point home loss to Purdue, a six-point road loss at Northwestern, and most recently a ten-point loss against Indiana at the other Assembly Hall. On January 5, the Illini were 13-2, with two wins in Big Ten play and an outside shot of being a contender. Less than a month later, they are tied with Penn State at the bottom of the conference standings and look highly unlikely for an NCAA tournament berth.
Illinois' biggest problem is simple: They're a crappy shooting team. The Illini are shooting at just a 46.4 percent effective rate, and are just 30.5 percent from behind the three-point arc. Illinois does not distribute the ball particularly well -- at just over two assists per five field goals made, they are one of the nation's worst teams at setting up baskets -- and they get to the line at the worst rate of any team in a major conference. All of that has led to an extended scoring drought: Since defeating Penn State 75-55 on January 4, the Illini have failed to break 70 in any game. They scored 43 against Northwestern, 46 against Indiana, 55 at Ohio State, and 58 against Purdue. Illinois has shot a meager 34.6 percent from the field in the last six games, and some of the numbers are absurd:
- Illinois took 22 -- TWENTY-TWO! -- more shots than Wisconsin at the Kohl Center, but got made just 25 of 79 attempts and generated 14 fewer free throws. They lost by 25.
- Illinois took 21 -- TWENTY-ONE! -- more shots than Northwestern, but shot a horrendous 28 percent from the field and had 11 fewer free throw attempts. Northwestern won 49-43.
- Even though they were at home, Illinois was again a net loser at the free throw line against Michigan State, allowing the Spartans to take 12 more free throws than they got. A 23/61 shooting night wasn't enough to make up for it, and Illinois lost by 16.
Defensively, the Illini are solid. Opponents are shooting at just a 46.9 percent effective rate, and Illinois doesn't foul at a particularly high rate. Illinois' rebounding is solid-if-unspectacular at both ends of the court. There's little to mention here: They play well, just not well enough to make up for their offensive problems.
Drake transfer Rayvonte Rice has emerged as Illinois' top player. Rice, the runner-up for Illinois' Mr. Basketball at Champaign's Centennial High who scored nearly 17 a game for the Bulldogs in 2011-12, never got an offer from Bruce Weber. John Groce had recruited Rice while at Ohio, and welcomed him back. The 6'4 swingman is playing nearly 33 minutes a game for the Illini, scoring 16.7 points per game and shooting 44 percent from the field. He is joined in the backcourt by 6'2 junior Tracty Abrams (12.1 ppg, 3.2 apg), a drive-first point guard who struggles from the perimeter (25 percent from three).
A pair of senior forwards, 6'6 Joseph Bertrand and 6'7 Jon Ekey, and junior center Nnanna Egwu get the bulk of the minutes on the Illinois front line. Bertrand has Illinois' highest shooting percentage -- by far -- at a 54.5 percent effective rate. He's also a consistent outside threat, shooting 42 percent from behind the arc, though he attempts just two three-point shots per game. Ekey is a pure perimeter shooter, with five attempts per game, but the senior is shooting at a middling 36 percent. He is ostensibly leading the team in rebounding, but there's little differentiation: Four of Illinois' five starters are averaging between five and six rebounds per game. Egwu, the Illini's token 6'11 guy this year, is not much of an offensive threat but blocks more than two shots per game.
The Illini typically go only three-deep on the bench, with freshman Kendrick Nunn (6'3, 4.0 ppg), Jaylon Tate (6'3, 2.6 ppg) and Malcolm Hill (6'6, 3.3 ppg) contributing from the bench, but Illinois gets 79 percent of its scoring from the starting five. If Iowa gets Illinois to go deep into the bench, the Hawkeyes are at a distinct advantage.
The formula here is fairly simple: Iowa is one of the nation's best teams at effective field goal percentage allowed. Illinois is one of the worst at shooting. As long as the Hawkeyes can find a way to 70 points -- more difficult than usual in recent games, to be fair -- they should break the spell and get a win in Champaign.