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PREVIEW: Hawkeyes (21-10, 10-10) vs. Illinois (12-20, 7-13)

Can the Hawkeyes advance in the Big Ten Tournament?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

With hopes of building some March momentum, the Iowa Hawkeyes (21-10, 10-10) face the Illinois Fighting Illini (12-20, 7-13) tonight. The game starts 25 minutes after Penn State takes on Minnesota, approximately 8:25 PM CDT, as JP dutifully noted.

Illinois has sputtered the last seven games, winning just a pair against Northwestern. Prior to that, they had a four game winning streak which included a home win over Michigan State.

The young Illini are led by freshmen Ayo Dosunmo and Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who average 13.9 and 12.8 points respectively. Bezhanishvili was particularly dominant against the Wildcats last night, with 26 points on 12/15 shooting.

Illinois has an effective field goal percentage of 49.3%, which accounts for threes. Trent Frazier (41.4%) and Aaron Jordan (41.0%) lift their overall percentage from three (34.5%). Of course, this doesn’t mean that an Andres Feliz or Kipper Nichols - he’s still around! - doesn’t find fire from deep.

Coached by Brad Underwood, we know they’re going to try and muck it up against the Hawkeyes. Often employing a press, Illinois’s defense sent opponents to the line at a significantly higher rate throughout the conference season, with a free throw attempt to field goal attempt ratio of .439 (seconding highest was Ohio State at .348). The benefit of the strategy is the turnovers and the Illini were able to force them on 20.9% of opponent possessions in conference to lead the league.

Rekindle the magic

In Iowa’s January matchup with Illinois, they had a borderline unbelievable effective field goal percentage at 83.3%, which included an even higher percentage from three (71.4%!!!) as they had from two (65.5%). That type of performance is irreplicable (Joe Wieskamp and Isaiah Moss combined for 11/12 from deep!), but the general sentiment is not: hit shots, get right.

Not only would making shots against Illinois’s press facilitate a better overall mindset for the Hawkeyes, but they have an opportunity they have an opportunity to take advantage of Underwood’s four guard lineup in the halfcourt. Luka Garza seems headed in the right direction after 25 points against Nebraska but Tyler Cook has had a rough couple of games. The games have highlighted Cook’s tentativeness and willingness to settle for low percentage midrange jumpers (his conference field goal percentage is actually down substantially from last year: 49.5% vs. 54.2%). He is best with his back to the basket and Illinois’s lineup should offer him that opportunity.

Play contained

Illinois is going to try and discombobulate the Hawkeyes so it’s important that even if shots are not falling, they don’t serve up Illinois offense through turnovers. Even in their first matchup, Iowa had 15 turnovers (21.7% of possessions), and if they’re not hitting shots it could spell doom.

Illinois’s defense can also play well without turning their opponent over - four of their conference wins are among six games with the lowest opponent turnover percentage. They did this by limiting opponents’ ability to hit the three. In those games, Northwestern (twice), Nebraska, and Rutgers combined for 22.9% from deep.

Finish defensive possessions

In the first half of the conference season, Iowa held opponents to an offensive rebounding percentage of 26.2%. The last 9 games, it’s up to 31.3%. Now, the 5% difference represents just about 1.5 less defensive rebounds in 32 opponent misses for the Hawkeyes, but what would the last month of the season look like if they got one more defensive rebound against Maryland? What does a more focused effort on the boards look like against Wisconsin? Bezhanishvili had six of his seven rebounds on the offensive glass in his first game against Iowa. There’s no doubt he’ll be ready to scoop up his team’s misses again.

Given the Hawkeyes propensity to flub away games against lesser opponents in the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa is going to have to play a smart and thorough game to put away an Illinois team which has showed signs of life the last 10 games. A win would also mean another bad loss avoided and build some momentum towards the NCAA Tournament.