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Basket Cases: The Champaign Room Chats About Tonight’s Pillow Fight

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We’ve got the other half of the winless Big Ten teams

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois
Jordan Bohannon playing defense, buttheads
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

In the lead up to the Iowa Hawkeyes game at the Illinois Fighting Illini, we asked some questions to The Champaign Room senior writer, Brandon Birkhead.

1) Michael Finke had two great games against the Hawkeyes last year and looks to have improved this year. Can Hawkeye fans expect him to pick up where he left off last year?

Finke has been the player that most Illini fans are dissatisfied with this season, and for good reason, he hasn’t been playing at the level you need at center to be successful in the Big Ten. It’s not all Finke’s fault though. Put simply, he’s not a center. He’s a catch and shoot stretch four that is being forced to play center because Illinois has no other options to play at the five on the roster. Finke is not good at posting up on offense -- but provides a some scoring with some veteran savvy -- and he is not particularly good on the defensive end either. It could be a lot worse, but Finke has had a tough go of it in 2017-18.

What is especially troubling is Finke’s main strength of three point shooting is no longer a strength for him. In his sophomore season FInke shot 41% from deep and 37% in his freshman season. That number has fallen to 31% this season, and he’s made zero threes in four Big Ten games and is 2-11 from deep in the last five games. This may be because of the extra energy Finke has to use on the defensive end guarding stronger an bigger players.

Without Finke hitting the deep ball, he is simply a below average center who provides no rim protection and provides little threat in the paint on offense.

That being said, I expect Finke’s struggles to continue against Iowa, but he does has the ability to hit three point shots on a good day.

2) Brad Underwood seems to have immediately instituted his higher paced offense and uses 9 players 15 minutes or more. Who else is likely to step up among this group?

The two players for Iowa to look out for are Leron Black and Trent Frazier.

Black has seen a huge increase in his scoring and efficiency on the offensive end. He is putting up a team leading 14.3 points per game, and provides Illinois with a decent post threat despite him being on 6’ 7”. He has mastered the turn around fade-away jumper in the post. He is a very tough and aggressive player.

Trent Frazier has really started to put it all together in his freshman season as of late. He is a very fast guard who loves to drive and score. He’s put up 20 points twice, including a fantastic 22 point game against Mizzou. He is averaging 15 points per game in his last seven games. Trent can be sloppy with the ball, and his playmaking and shot selection could use some work, but he is the most exciting guard on this Illini roster, and the best player Illinois has to go to to get a bucket when things aren’t working.

3) The Illini do an exceptional job turning teams over and rate in the top 10 according to KenPom. What do they do defensively to achieve this?

On defense they put a huge amount of pressure on the opposing guards in half court. They will defend and press the opposing guards to the half-court line and do everything they can to make them uncomfortable. It’s a tough style of defense to deal with if you’ve never seen it before. With this strategy, Illinois is very good at forcing teams to play at a quicker pace than they would like to and this can force teams into mistakes, especially teams without good guard play.

4) With Illinois sitting at 10-7 and winless in the Big Ten, how has this season rated according to the expectations fans had with the transition to Underwood?

Most reasonable fans knew this was going to be a transition season and any post-season play would be a long shot. Having to replace Malcolm Hill’s scoring was always going to be a huge challenge, and playing an undersized front court of Finke and Black in the Big Ten was always a tough ask on the defensive end. That being said, I and some others thought the team were be further along offensively than they have been. Poor shooting from many players hasn’t helped, and neither has the disappointing scoring of transfer Mark Alstork -- though he is a great all-around player.

Before the season started, the Illinois team shared a video where Brad Underwood directed called out his team for a “loser’s mentality” several times during a practice and film session left over from the John Groce era. That statement has shown to be true in some ways, and this team has a longer way to go than originally anticipated by fans. Brad Underwood has great momentum on the recruiting trail, and is moving the team in a great direction, but this seems to be a things are going to get worse before they get better kind of season.

5) Finally, who ya got?

This will be a close game, with a lot of back and forth play like in most Illinois games. I think playing at home should give Illinois the slight edge, and I think Illinois will be able to come out with a 73-68 win.

Thanks Brandon. We hope your team loses by a million. You can pester him on the Twitter about the game (or why Illinois sports can never have anything nice) if you’re feeling like it at @bbirk3 or @Champaign_Room.