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Fran-Graphs, Illinois

[Click to embiggen; Photo credit (clockwise from upper left): Michael Conroy/AP Photo; Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images; Michael Conroy/AP Photo; Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images; Brian Spurlock/US Presswire; Brian Spurlock/US Presswire; Brian Spurlock/US Presswire; Michael Conroy/AP Photo]

The pedestrian 64-61 score belied what was, in fact, a very weird and wonderful game. To get an idea of just how unusual this game was, look at the following numbers:

  • Six: Iowa's turnover total;
  • Zero: Illinois' free throw attempt total;
  • Zero: the number of fouls Zach McCabe had;
  • Two: the number of turnovers Bryce Cartwright had;
  • Fourteen: Iowa's offensive rebound total;
  • 38.9%: Iowa's offensive rebounding percentage;
  • 33.3%: the offensive rebounding percentage of the team with the gargantuan, 7'1" manimal in the post.
The first number is the most impressive. After a game against Northwestern where turnovers arguably cost them the game, the Hawks came out against a very athletic Illinois team and put up their second-best turnover total of the year (their previous best, five, came against Boise State). Part of the credit goes to an Illinois defense that did little to force the issue, but a lot has to be said for the calm play of Iowa's guards, especially Bryce Cartwright. Cartwright has been a boom or bust player all year for Iowa, but against Illinois he played under control and still dealt out several astounding assists, including a no-look bounce pass on the break to Gatens and a nifty Steve Nash-esque assist under the basket to Basabe. Cartwright has made Iowa fans wince more than any other player this year, but he showed against Illinois just what a dynamic force he can be when he is on.

But the player of the game honors have to go to Matt Gatens, who scored a very efficient 20 points on just 12 shots while holding Illinois star guard Brandon Paul to 2-11 shooting and seven turnovers. Paul may have been too tired to shoot, because he had the task of shadowing Gatens all day as he ran off screens. And the crazy thing is that Paul did an awfully good job of it. Gatens had very few clean looks from long distance and had to be remarkably patient to get the shots he did. The game really turned on two Gatens plays midway through the second half. With the Illini up seven and seemingly ready to blow the game open at any moment, Gatens hit a three to stop the bleeding, then on the next play, picked off a lazy pass by Joseph Bertrand and took it the other way for a dunk. That seemed to open the flood gates for Iowa, and a 15-4 run followed, fueled by steals, offensive rebounds (including three by Josh Oglesby of all people), and some sweet, savory play by Dunk L'Orange.
Aaron White deserves non-Gatens player of the game for his all-around performance. He did a little of everything: made a three, stole the ball three times, held down the boards (seven defensive rebounds, two offensive), and looked as confident in his offensive game as he has all year. He had several great plays, including a steal at half court that led to two points, but the most exciting play was a pretty small one late in the game. He caught the ball at the three-point line, gave one shot fake and then drove it to the basket without hesitation. The one part of his game that has been a little awkward so far has been his dribble drives; if he gets that smoothed out... yikes.

Iowa's outburst in the second half didn't come out of nowhere: it was the direct result of some smart rotation moves early in the game. Fran McCaffery chose to give unusually long first half breaks to Gatens, Marble, White and McCabe by bringing in Eric May and Andrew Brommer midway through the first half. The immediate cost was a fairly weak offensive team, but the move paid off later on. When the second half rolled around and Meyers Leonard and Brandon Paul started to drag, Iowa's players looked notably fresher. The steals, the offensive rebounds, the mistakes by Illinois, all speak to the fact that Iowa still had the glycogen there to power their muscle and brains, and Illinois didn't.

The messy endgame can probably be attributed to Iowa's energy stores finally running low. White, in particular, looked spent in the last ten minutes, and was slow rotating on two crucial Illinois three-point baskets. If Iowa had been able to score just a few baskets or indeed made just a couple more free throws, it wouldn't have been as close as it was. They may do well to consider putting in those deep subs in crunch time, even if it's just for a possession or two, because the team has shown a tendency to look listless on offense in the last ten minutes. They could also do a better job of getting into their offense early and not settling for jump shots jacked at the last second. Not only are those shots low-percentage, but the timing of them is so predictable that the opposing team knows exactly when prepare for the rebound.

Iowa deserves credit overall for playing a very sound defensive game. Leonard had an excellent game (9-11 FG, 18 points), using his body to shield off defenders in the paint and finishing the easy shots that resulted, but the rest of the Illini went 18-51 for just 43 points. Gatens, McCabe, White, and Devyn Marble all put in yeoman's work harassing the ball and rotating smartly. McCabe, in particular, had the thankless job of wrestling with Leonard in the post and acquitted himself quite well despite the six inch height difference. On the day, there were only a couple of really poor rotations for Iowa: the threes that White couldn't get to and a play where Brommer decided it was better to rotate off of Leonard and onto the guard 25 feet from the basket (a Leonard dunk resulted). And Iowa did it without fouling.

A word on the foul situations. I'm sure Illinois fans are shocked that they didn't go to the line once in the game, but I only saw a couple of plays where it seemed like contact should have been called on Iowa and wasn't. It was just a very non-physical, free-flowing game, and Illinois didn't force the issue very often by driving to the basket. The few dunks they did have came from Leonard, who got such great position that Iowa's players conceded the shot. Iowa only got called for 10 fouls, but Illinois only had 13, and four of them came on intentional fouls in the last minute. I'm biased, but it didn't seem like a terribly officiated game. There were a couple of bad calls that went Iowa's way -- it looked like Cartwright stepped on the baseline on his Nash assist, and I couldn't see how Paul traveled that one time late in the game -- but that's about it. Iowa just happened to get fouled while shooting, and Illinois got fouled while they were dribbling.

Michigan State is up next, and really who knows what will happen. One positive for Iowa is that one of the Spartans' better scorers and rebounders, Branden Dawson, is out of the lineup with an ACL injury. Iowa will need a repeat of its unusually great rebounding performance against the wide bodies of Draymond Green and Derrick Nix, and that's where the fatigue from the Illinois game may come back to bite them.

Post-script on Weber

This may mark the end for Bruce Weber, which is kind of a shame. He always seemed like a good coach and a decent guy to me, but there's a sort of Tom Davis-like scenario in action now where Weber's previous success is almost being held against him as a standard he can't meet. For Illinois fans who are out for blood today, consider the following numbers: 2, 11, 33, 40, 24, 53, 18, 69. Those are Illinois' Ken Pomeroy rankings from 2005 to 2012. So Illinois was a top-40 team six out of the last eight years, and this year is their first below fifty. The fans know their team better than I do, so they'll have to judge if this year is an anomaly or something more serious. Also consider the number of seniors who played significant minutes for this Illinois team (one) and compare it to the number of freshmen and sophomores who did the same (seven). The popular take on their season seems to be that they were a massively talented team that just wasn't coached well enough, but the impression I got was that they were a massively young team, and one that was pretty thin on talent to boot after Leonard, Paul and Richardson. Maybe that's Weber's fault, but maybe it was just one bad year. Take it from an Iowa fan who has learned better: change for its own sake is not always a good thing. Wait, why am I trying to help Illinois? Fire him! Fire him now!