Iowa (18-4) at Illinois (11-12)
Time: Sunday 12:00 p.m. CT
Location: State Farm Center
Tickets: University of Illinois
TV/Streaming: Big Ten Network/BTN2Go
Line: Iowa -13
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All numbers in this piece come from Kenpom or Sports Reference. Additionally, ratings in the four factors charts are scaled so that 100 = average. Thus, above 100 is above average, while below 100 is below average. For example, Iowa's 106 shooting rating means that their eFG% has been 6% better than the national average during Big Ten play, while Illinois' 93 means they have been 7% worse at contesting opponent shots.
Iowa brings their top-ranked conference offense into the State Farm Center on Sunday, and faces off against Illinois and what has been the tenth-ranked defense in Big Ten play. The Hawkeye offense is scoring 1.15 points per possession (PPP) against Big Ten teams thus far, while Illinois' defense is allowing 1.08.
We all know Iowa's main strengths all season have been their ability to fill the hoop with the round, rubber ball on a regular basis, while rarely leaving possessions empty due to turnovers. However, they no longer appear to have a clear weakness. The offensive rebounding has teetered on average all season, but they have been significantly better at getting to the free throw line since Big Ten play started. And not all of the free throws since January have been due to being fouled in end-of-game situations. There really seems to be some progress there.
On defense, Illinois has actually been average or better in three of the four factors in conference play. However, we all know that shooting is the most important category, and they have been absolutely awful at contesting shots. Big Ten opponents are making 36% of their three-point attempts against the Illini, but that's not the big issue. Instead, it's the 52% they are allowing inside the three-point line that is killing them.
This Illinois team has been neutered by injuries this season, and that has taken a real toll on them in the post. 6'10" big man, Mike Thorne, has been injured most of the season, while another 6'10" big, Michael Finke, just went down a few games ago, too. That leaves Illinois with the 6'10" Maverick Morgan as the only active guy on the roster standing over 6'7". In other words, they are extremely vulnerable down low. Of course, even when those guys are healthy, none of those big men are particularly great at blocking shots, and none of the smaller guys on the team are, either. Thus, with a lack of depth in the post and no real shot blockers, it would also make sense that they probably aren't great at contesting shots, either.
Overall, Iowa should get their three-pointers, but there should be plenty of opportunity to score in the paint here, too.
When Illinois Has the Ball
Illinois' offense isn't much better than their defense. In Big Ten play, their 0.98 PPP is eleventh out of fourteen in the Big Ten. Meanwhile, Iowa is also giving up 0.98 PPP, and they have done so while playing a tougher conference slate.
This offense has a few very talented players in Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn, but injuries have left this team with very limited options elsewhere. Thus, outside of not turning the ball over and being average when it comes to drawing fouls, this team really struggles to shoot the ball and they almost never get an offensive rebound. In the three years I have been previewing Big Ten games, Illinois' conference offensive rebounding rate has to be the worst rating I have ever seen by a Big Ten team in conference play. That 45% below average rating translates to them grabbing an offensive rebound on 16.6% of their missed shots. The next worse team in the conference is Rutgers, and even they are hauling in 20.8% of their misses. Illinois is atrocious on the offensive glass.
The Illini's offensive rebounding woes are good news for Iowa, who has had their own share of issues on the defensive boards all season. That may be Iowa's weakness on defense, but the big height and length advantage they will have on Sunday should help them win this battle. Apart from rebounding, Iowa also has advantages in contesting shots and keeping their opponents away from the free throw line.
The only area in which the Hawkeyes don't have the advantage is when it comes to turnovers. Iowa has been above average at forcing them this season, but Illinois just hasn't given the ball away very often. Even with few turnovers, Illinois should struggle to shoot and rebound well against Iowa and their length, and hardly anybody has been able visit the charity stripe with any real consistency against this Iowa defense this year. Those three categories going in Iowa's favor, could be enough to hold Illinois to less than a point per possession on their home court.
Style of Play
After playing a bunch of teams that play at a slower tempo than Iowa, they finally go up against a team in Illinois that plays more at their speed. Both teams are averaging about 70 possessions per game this season, and they are both averaging 68.8 possessions per game in conference play. And those parallels hold up when you compare time of possession. Iowa and Illinois are first and second in the conference in fastest offensive time of possession, holding the ball for an average of 16.5 seconds. On defense, Iowa forces conference opponents to hold the ball, on average, for 18 seconds, while Illinois is at 17.9. The average time of possession for Division I teams is 17.2 seconds.
One potential concern I have about this match up is that Iowa has had struggles getting back on defense against quicker teams like Dayton and Rutgers this season. Illinois is not afraid to push the ball up court and let guys like Nunn and Coleman-Lands take a transition three if they are open. Additionally, Hill will attack the basket in the open court. So if Iowa is slow getting up the court, Illinois could make them pay.
Looking at the type of shots each team tends to favor, we see that Illinois leans more heavily toward the three-point shot.
The thing is, though, the Illini aren't really hitting their threes at a high rate against Big Ten teams. Malcolm Hill's threes are falling at a lower rate this season, which leaves Kendrick Nunn and Jalen Coleman-Lands as the only two big threats from outside right now since Michael Finke is injured. And that's even more important because Illinois has been terrible shooting the ball from inside the arc against Big Ten teams. They have been great at the free throw line, but they don't get their nearly enough to offset average outside shooting and awful inside shooting.
Iowa, on the other hand, has been great from long range, while struggling a bit from closer up in Big Ten play. Although, the two-point shooting is slowly trending upward now that Iowa is through the toughest part of their schedule.
When we look at the points, we can see how bad Illinois' two-point shooting has been. This has left them relying quite a bit on their threes falling and getting to the free throw line for offense against Big Ten defenses. Fortunately, those are two things that opposing Big Ten teams have not done well against Iowa this season.
As for the Hawkeyes, some early two-point struggles against good defenses have kept Iowa's scoring distribution from being close to the NCAA average. I could see them getting closer to that norm as the season nears an end.
Players to Watch
Note: A quick reminder on how this chart works. The horizontal axis represents a player's usage rate, while the vertical axis represents a player's offensive rating. The circle size represents playing time (bigger means more time on the court). This chart should tell us how involved in the offense the player is, how efficient they are in doing so, and in how many minutes per game do they accomplish all of this.
The thing with Illinois being as bad as they are is that they have actually recruited fairly well even as their program has sunk to new lows. They have plenty of former 4 star recruits on this roster, but two of them are just true freshmen and two more are injured. Like I've already said, injuries have decimated this Illinois team. They have taken away Leron Black (one of those former 4 star recruits), who is probably Illinois' best rebounder and toughest defender. Injuries have also taken away redshirt senior point guard (and former 4 star recruit) Tracy Abrams, who is sitting out his second straight season due to injury. On top of that, Illinois is missing the two big men I mentioned earlier, Mike Thorne and Michael Finke. And, if that wasn't enough, they had to dismiss power forward, Darius Paul, before the season, after he was arrested in France for being intoxicated in public, vandalizing cars and resisting arrest while the team was on an overseas trip.
Now, despite this horrible luck, Illinois isn't completely devoid of talent. They still have former 4 star recruits in Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn. And true freshman 4 star recruit, Jalen Coleman-Lands, has been a bright spot on offense for them, too. But after those guys, they don't have a whole lot else right now. Essentially, this Illinois team goes as far as Hill, Nunn, and Coleman-Lands can take them. If Hill is scoring in the various ways he's capable of and Nunn and Coleman-Lands are hitting their threes, Illinois could potentially hang with Iowa. If they aren't, though, then they could get blown away.
Let's start with Hill.
You could definitely make an argument that he is the best player in the conference on an awful team. He's a combo forward who can play all over the floor. John Groce likes mention that Hill has the versatility to play all five positions on the court, and that he even has at one time or another in his college career. The 6'7" 220 lb. junior plays 36 minutes per game, uses the most possessions out of any player in the Big Ten and is also the leading the conference in scoring, at 19.1 points per contest. His game is comparable to Shavon Shields, in that he relies more on his powerful build to create offense, and can score from all over the court. He can get out on the break for a layup, and he can attack his man off the dribble in the half court. But, similar to Shields, his scoring efficiency can drop when he settles for too many mid-range jumpers. And he does love him some mid-range jumpers. His preference seems to be for the turnaround fadeaway variety.
Hill also has the ability to shoot from downtown, but 72% of his 308 field goal attempts this season have been from inside the three-point line. He was a 39% shooter from long range last year and a 34% shooter as a freshman, but his shooting is down this season to 31% overall and just 28% against conference opponents. So the further Iowa can keep him from the basket, the better.
Since Illinois has been pretty depleted for most of the season, Hill has also had to take on more ball-handling duties as a junior, too. His assist rate has jumped this season, as he can sometimes look like a point forward when handling the ball in transition or when driving to the rim and finding the open man off the pick and roll or once the defense collapses. He is also the best on his team and second best in the conference at getting to the free throw line, and he is Illinois' best defensive rebounder on the other end of the court. He's averaging about 14 field goal and 10 free throw attempts per game, and I would expect those numbers to be similar in order for Illinois to try and keep up with Iowa's offense.
Next, Kendrick Nunn is playing 37 minutes per game at the shooting guard/small forward positions and scoring 16 points per game while doing so against Big Ten teams. He doesn't use quite as many possessions as Hill, due to Nunn not being much of a passer, but he does take the same percentage of shots when he's on the court. His biggest weapon on offense is his three-point shooting, where he's knocking down 40% on the season and 39% against Big Ten opponents. He's not quite as dangerous from two-point range, where he's hitting just 42% of his tries in the Big Ten, so if Iowa can keep him from getting open looks from distance that would be huge in limiting his offensive output. Of course, Nunn is similar to Peter Jok in that he doesn't need much room to get off a shot, so even good defense may not completely limit him if he's feeling it.
Illinois will utilize ball screens and down screens in order to allow him to get a three off, so Iowa should be prepared to fight through those, per usual. He is attempting almost 8 three-pointers a game in Big Ten play, and I don't see why that would change against Iowa.
The freshman shooting guard, Jalen Coleman-Lands, is having a nice start to his career for the Illini as a third scoring option. In 27 minutes per game, the former 4 star recruit is giving the Illini about 11 points per game against Big Ten competition. John Groce runs similar things for him as he does for Nunn, which means he's pretty much only a threat from three-point range. Almost 75% of his field goal attempts have been from downtown this season, and he's converted 40% of them overall and 38% against the Big Ten. Once you get him inside the arc, though, his field goal percentage drops to about 36%. Outside of his 6 three-point attempts per game, he doesn't really do much else for the Illini right now.
In the post, Maverick Morgan is the only real scholarship big man left on this roster right now. He is scoring about 9 points per game in conference play, but he literally doesn't do anything else. All of that non-scoring stuff like rebounding and blocking shots that you would like a post player to do? Yeah, he doesn't do any of that.
Then there are point guards Jaylon Tate and Khalid Lewis. Tate is the starter, and is not much of an offensive threat. He's a better passer than scorer, but his really high turnover rate takes away much of the value he provides from assists. Lewis, meanwhile, is similar to Tate in that he can't shoot and is a pretty good assist man. The one thing he does to separate himself, is that he doesn't turn the ball over quite as much as Tate does.
Finally, guys like Aaron Jordan, D.J. Williams, and Alex Austin are the remaining bench players that will see some minutes against Iowa. Jordan is a former 4 star recruit, who hasn't taken to the college game as quickly as his teammate Coleman-Lands has. His main contribution to this team is his ability to come off the bench and make a three every so often. Williams is a freshman forward who should be getting more playing time now that Illinois just lost Michael Finke to injury. In his limited time this season, he hasn't done much of anything besides not shoot the ball well and turn it over a lot. So look for more of that on Sunday. As for Austin, he is a transfer from Eastern Illinois, who also plays the small forward position when one of Nunn, Hill, and Jordan aren't playing there. Outside of being a decent rebounder for a perimeter guy, he doesn't do much of anything else.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #1 (!), Illinois #135
Projected Outcome: Iowa 81 (86%), Illinois 69 (14%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.14, Illinois 0.97
Projected Possessions: 71
Barring an outburst from Hill and Nunn and even Coleman-Lands, Iowa should be able to win this game fairly easily. Sure, this game is on the road and that should count for something, seeing how Illinois did beat Purdue in the State Farm Center last month. However, Iowa is strong on both sides of the ball and Illinois has been absolutely awful on both sides of the ball, especially after losing something like half their roster to injuries. As long as Iowa doesn't have an incredibly off game and Illinois doesn't have the exact opposite, the Hawkeyes should be 10-1 in conference play by the end of the weekend.