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As the World Tourns: Hawkeyes Face Illinois in 12-13 Showdown

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Can Iowa find some magic in the Mecca of Basketball?

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

It’s that time of year again: tournament time. Due to Jim Delany’s thirst for the East Coast, the Big Ten Tournament gets March started early along with powerhouse basketball conferences like the Big 12 South and Atlantic Coast Sun. Who can blame him, though? When you can compress your conference season to play in the most famous arena on the planet, you’ve got to do it, right? Oh, just once you say? Alright. In his defense, though, there are weirder conference tournament locations, like the Ohio Valley hosting theirs in San Antonio (the closest school is 13 hours away) or the Big Sky going to Reno - I guess Vegas couldn’t host a fifth - despite lacking a team in Nevada (they have one in every bordering state, though).

Enough soliloquizing on the minutiae of college basketball tournaments: The 12-seed Iowa Hawkeyes (13-18, 4-14) face the 13-seed Illinois Fighting Illini (14-17, 4-14) in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament. It is, frankly, a no lose proposition for the Hawkeyes: they either get the “conference tournament win” monkey off their back or end this dreaded season which, to their credit, did have some bright spots. And you never know, Jordan Bohannon could harness the Spirit of Kemba Walker and do the damned thing.

As we look towards Iowa’s opponent, the Illini were able to tally a four wins by way of a sweep of Rutgers and home wins against Indiana and Nebraska. Any team who could keep Nebraska out of the tourney is a friend of ours. They do it with extreme defense which has them top five in turnover percentage and bottom five in free throw rate. Their other two four factors - eFG% and OReb% - are not particularly good on the defensive end. As we found out in January, they will yield boatloads of points if the opponent is able to limit turnovers.

They’re led defensively by freshman Trent Frazier, who was second in the league in steals per game. Due to the nature of their game, Brad Underwood will throw out 7 guards across three positions and play 9 guys between 17 and 26 minutes per game. They actually lead the country, per sports-reference, in personal fouls per game. So Iowa will find themselves at the line. In Iowa’s first matchup against Illinois, they visited the charity stripe 40 times and made 33 of them, including 19/19 from Jordan Bohannon and Luka Garza combined.

As a result of playing not playing anyone much, they only have two who average double figures: Leron Black (15.7) and Frazier (12.5). Lately, Underwood has also leaned heavily on Leron Black. In the last five games, Black has averaged 22 points a game while manning the post at 6’7”. He can stretch his shot out to three and is shooting a blistering 51.2% from distance. Sample size must be taken into account here, as 12 of his 21 makes have come in the last 6 games.

Can the Hawkeyes get to 2-0 against the Illini this season? Here’s what they need to do to get there.

Play from ahead: It took a wild confluence of events for Iowa to mount the 20-point comeback earlier this year. So let’s not do that again. The main areas Iowa can leverage this is with their strength inside. As it feels most every game, they’ll have the advantage here. In the earlier matchup, Iowa shot 62.5% from two and grabbed 17 offensive boards. If Iowa gets a combined 40 points from Tyler Cook and Garza like they did in January, it’s a recipe for success.

The secondary benefit of going inside early and often is putting Illinois in foul trouble. Black has found out four times in conference play and tallied four in six others. It would be coaching malfeasance if Iowa can’t get him off the court by way of foul trouble. Sadly, it is probably the best way to stop him on offense, too.

Value the ball: Iowa had 11 of their 17 turnovers in the first half during the first matchup. It goes hand in hand with the first point, but probably bears repeating: don’t do that again, please.

Brady Ellingson, who had three TOs in 12 minutes of play last time may be a non-factor here. He’s gathered six DNPs since getting concussed in practice and has gotten just 24 minutes of playing time in four games. But, Fran McCaffery may look to guards to match up with the lineups Underwood will throw out.

Embrace the setting: Madison Square Garden is the Mecca of Basketball. The team should be absolutely jacked for this game and I expect them to come out as loose as they’ve been all season.

Let’s have some fun.