Iowa basketball is on a four-game winning streak after its gritty victory over Penn State on Wednesday, the team’s second consecutive road victory without star forward Tyler Cook. The Hawkeyes seem to be rounding into form at exactly the right time, and one has to imagine the players have vengeance on their mind as they look ahead to next Thursday’s matchup against 6th ranked Michigan State. Looking at the schedule, one might assume that Iowa’s matchup on Sunday against lowly Illinois (5-12, 1-5 in Big Ten play) was nothing more than a formality and could serve as a nice tune-up game for the more high-profile contest to follow.
Illinois’ victory over Minnesota has largely shattered any such perceptions. The Illini notched their first conference win in dominant fashion, running a then-13-3 Minnesota team out of the gym in a thoroughly dominant 95-68 victory. While Brad Underwood’s squad still suffers from many of the weaknesses one would expect to find in a fairly young team, scrappy performances against Gonzaga, Notre Dame, Indiana, and Michigan prove that Iowa cannot afford to look past the Illini the way Minnesota did without suffering a similar fate.
Here are a few key factors to watch heading into Saturday’s game:
1. Can Iowa slow down Illinois’ talented young guards?
Iowa tends to play at a fairly quick pace, but the Illini to take their pace to another level entirely. While not nearly as fast as Savannah State, Illinois does lead the conference in possessions per game with 75.6, and Brad Underwood has stressed the importance that scoring in transition holds to his team’s offensive success. The Hawkeyes have long struggled with their transition defense during Fran McCaffery’s tenure, which most recently manifested itself in a series of first half three pointers surrendered against Penn State.
Leading Illinois’ fast break are two talented young guards in freshman Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore Trent Frazier, both of whom are skilled at attacking the rim as well as pulling up from three. Dosunmu in particular has elevated his game in conference play as he becomes more confident and capable driving into the lane to compliment his robust mid-range and perimeter scoring skills. Iowa’s guards should have their hands full as they attempt to contain these two, and it’s not unreasonable to expect that players like Bohannon and Wieskamp may struggle to stay with Illinois guards when asked to cover them in man defense.
One effective way to slow down Illinois’ frenetic pace is to strategically deploy presses after made baskets. Both Frazier and Dosunmu have proven to be somewhat turnover-prone (neither has even a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio this season), and utilizing the press can not only slow down the young guards and force them to halt their transition down the court to diagnose the pressure, but could also create turnover opportunities if the Illini are reckless in their treatment of the press. Switching between man and zone in the half-court can have a similar effect; the more Iowa’s defense can make the Illini guards stop and think instead of reacting and relying on their athleticism to get them shot opportunities, the better chance the Hawkeyes have of holding the Illini offense in check.
2. Can Iowa’s post players continue to shine?
Even without Tyler Cook, the Hawkeyes have proven capable of taking over games with their interior play. Luka Garza’s combination of skilled post moves and relentless tenacity helped him put together a standout performance against Penn State, while Ryan Kriener’s soft shooting touch and surprising quickness with the ball has made him a revelation in recent games. While not built like a traditional forward, Nicholas Baer leads the team in blocks and steals, has proven to be quite adept at help defense, and always seems to come up with a key rebound when the situation calls for it. Tyler Cook is still a question mark for this game at the time this piece is being written, but his presence on the court would certainly bolster Iowa’s already gaudy prowess down low.
Iowa’s strength inside has proven to be a mismatch for most of their opponents so far this season but should be particularly pronounced against Illinois. 6-9 forward Giorgi Bezhanishvili is the only true post player who gets significant minutes for the Illini, and while the Georgian freshman has been a surprisingly adept contributor so far this season and played particularly well against Minnesota, he struggles on the boards (4.9 rebounds per game) and is hardly a rim-protector on the defensive end. Bezhanishvili has also been foul-prone in his first year of college ball, and Illinois is not likely to fare well if players like Adonis De La Rosa and Samba Kane are forced to play significant minutes against the Hawkeyes.
Unfortunately for Illinois, Bezhanishvili is not the only player on their roster with a tendency to commit frequent fouls. The Illini rank 317th in fouls per game, having committed a concerning 366 fouls through 17 contests. Since Iowa still leads the nation in most free throws attempted per game, it’s easy to imagine the Hawkeyes pounding the ball into the paint and taking advantage of their size and skill advantage on the block, daring Illinois to either surrender easy baskets or risk getting into early foul trouble.
3. Can Iowa avoid self-imposed errors?
While Illinois has slowly built up its roster talent in recent years with recruits like Dosunmu, Iowa should still have a decided advantage over the Illini in this contest, particularly considering how well the Hawkeyes have played at home. Still, the Illini have a puncher’s chance in this game if they are able to consistently force and then capitalize on their opponent’s mistakes. Despite their overall poor defensive metrics, the Illini are surprisingly adept at forcing turnovers, ranking 19th in the country in most turnovers committed by their opponents.
While Iowa has certainly reduced its turnover rate since last season, the Hawkeyes are still only average at ball security and occasionally prone to frustrating bouts of careless ballhandling. The Illini have been willing to gamble frequently on defense to attempt to force turnovers, so Iowa should be careful not to be baited into committing unforced errors against a team it should be able to beat without needlessly taking chances. If the Hawkeyes can play within themselves, they should be able to extend their winning streak to five games before their big rematch against Michigan State.