Iowa (20-10, 9-8) vs. Illinois (17-13, 6-11)
Date: March 8, 2014
Time: 7:30 p.m. CT
Location: Carver Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City
Line: Iowa -11
Here's the situation for next weekend: The Hawkeyes are a game behind Nebraska for the fourth seed (and the first-round bye that comes with it) in the Big Ten Tournament. Just one team has ever won four games in four days to take the conference title (Iowa, 2001), so getting the bye is a fairly big deal. If Nebraska wins at home against Wisconsin Sunday, everything else is elementary. But if Iowa wins Saturday and Nebraska loses to the Badgers, the Hawkeyes would get the bye. Iowa is also tied with Ohio State , which hosts Michigan State Sunday, for the fifth spot. A loss Saturday could drop Iowa as low as sixth in the conference tournament. Frankly, that could be preferable, as a path through Purdue/Northwestern, slump-ish Michigan State, and white-hot Wisconsin looks less formidable than Purdue/Northwestern, white-hot Nebraska, and just really good Michigan.
The only line left on the schedule: a sneaky-dangerous Illinois team that looks a lot different than it did when Iowa visited Champbana on February 1. The Illini went a month without winning, dropping eight consecutive conference games between January 8 and February 8. While a trip to Penn State stopped the bleeding -- Penn State has an uncanny ability to do that -- consecutive losses to Nebraska and Ohio State and a disastrous home beatdown from Michigan Tuesday put a cap on an Illinois season that will likely end next weekend.
That's not to say the Illini are horrible, though. They were horrible, to be sure, but wins over Minnesota, Nebraska, and Michigan State (in East Lansing) in recent weeks have shown that Illinois can be a formidable opponent when it wants to be. Rayvonte Rice continues to be the dominant player on this team, leading the Illini in scoring (15.8 ppg), rebounding (6.1 rpg), and steals (1.5 spg). Point guard Tracy Abrams is tops in assists (3.2 apg) and second in scoring (10.6 ppg) despite shooting just 34 percent from the field and 27 percent from three.
And therein lies the problem for Illinois: They suck at shooting. The team shoots just 40.7 percent and at a 46.0 percent effective rate. Their three-point rate (31.6 percent) is tenth-worst among all major conference teams (and "major conference" includes things like Butler, Southern Cal, and the SEC). If Illinois was an interior-oriented team, that could be excusable, but they're not. In fact, their frontcourt of Joseph Bertrand, Jon Ekey, and Nnanna (BATMAN!!!) Egwu post just 23 points per game combined and -- you guessed it -- don't shoot worth a damn. Illinois really only goes eight-deep, and backup guard Jaylon Tate is doubtful for Saturday's game with a foot/ankle injury. Kendrick Nunn can be a perimeter threat off the bench.
On paper, this looks decidedly in Iowa's favor, but the Hawkeyes have made a habit of turning poor-shooting teams into the '84 Celtics in recent weeks. If Iowa is again going to find the defensive form it showed earlier this season, Saturday would be a good day to put it on display. But if Illinois is allowed to make shots like Minnesota and Indiana and Michigan State were, they become as formidable as anyone. Like so many things during the recent Iowa skid, it's going to come down to defense.