If it feels like you’ve seen this before, it’s because you have. Maybe I should better define “this.”
“This” is the Iowa Hawkeyes (ranked 18th, 15-6, 6-4), once again playing the Illinois Fighting Illini (#19, 16-5, 8-2) playing on
Super Bowl Sunday the Sunday of the “Big Game.” In my research, these are the two most prominent teams on this day of the last 10 years. Illinois has been tagged five times as the sacrificial lamb on the most holy of American sports holidays while this is Iowa’s fourth time (tied with three others).
In fact, they’ve faced off once before, a 2016 rout where Iowa lead by double digits for 16+ minutes of the second half in a 77-65 win. Iowa was ranked #2 in KenPom that day. Fun times.
Anyways, both of these teams enter today on a streak of sorts where something’s gotta give. Illinois has used a seven-game winning streak, including three on the road, to gain poll position of the conference standings. The Hawkeyes, on the other hand, have a four-game winning streak against Illinois. The Illini won just 26 games in the two seasons the streak spans, so they were hardly Stephen Bardo’s outfits Iowa was beating.
Painting Brad Underwood’s career with a broad brush, there’s one clear difference between his team this year and his prior groups: the cost/benefit calculation of an “in your face” defense which forced turnovers but also sent opponents to the line to a hilarious degree. Dating back to his time at Stephen F. Austin, his previous six teams were in the bottom 30 of free throw attempts/field goal attempts on five separate occasions. This year? They’re the 15th best. As for opponent turnover percentage, they ranked in the top 10 four times (a fifth time at 24th and sixth time at 55th), but sit at 303rd this season.
That isn’t to say they’ve stopped playing defense. KenPom ranks them as the 24th best, on the back of restricting three point attempts and contesting just about every shot. In conference play, opponents are shooting a league-worst 42.9% from 2 and league-second-worst 27% from three. All told, only two opponents have scored more than 70 points in Big Ten play: Michigan State and Northwestern.
Kofi Cockburn: When a team is ranked as highly as Illinois is in minutes continuity (77.2% overlap between this year and last for 8th in the country), you can isolate that number to basically one guy. Cockburn (pronounced “CO-burn”) is that guy. At 7-foot, 290 lbs, he’s a load for anyone to handle and averages 14.4 points a game. He’s drawing roughly the same amount of fouls/40 minutes as Luka Garza and is making hay on the offensive glass: he rebounds ~16% of Illinois’s misses when he’s on the court. In raw terms, that’s 3.6 offensive boards/games.
Ayo Dosunmu: The Chicago native is averaging 16.0 points a game and is looking like the best wing in the conference. He’s also approaching Bohannon territory insomuch as if it is a tight game down the stretch, everyone in the building knows he’s taking the shot. The Tribune noted his performance against each of Wisconsin, Rutgers, Northwestern, Purdue & Michigan. If there’s one weak spot, it’s been his dip in three-point shooting percentage.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili: With Cockburn’s emergence, Bezhanishvili has been the most impacted as his minutes, shot attempts, and points have all decreased after his freshman season and his game has become more perimeter-oriented. But he will be an important piece against the Hawkeyes as Connor McCaffery will be giving up significant size when Iowa goes man-to-man. But if Giorgi is cooking from outside and in, it will force Iowa’s hand defensively.
Can Iowa find their shot? Throughout much of this season, the Hawks have been able to sustain their shotmaking four, maybe five games at a time. After two games well below their season-average effective FG%, Iowa feels primed for a strong performance. The problem, of course, is that Illinois is second in the conference on defense in that category. The Hawks can ill-afford tentativeness from CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp from deep. Hopefully the return to Carver enables a better performance from the two.
How much does Iowa commit to zone defensively? Illinois is shooting just 27.4% from three in league play, good for 13th out of the 14 teams. So it would make sense for Fran McCaffery to deploy his variety of zone looks later today. The only problem is the rebounding woes that might cause the Hawkeyes, much like we saw in the second half against Maryland. And while Illinois doesn’t shoot particularly well, they do have a number of guys who are capable of going off, especially if the Hawks’ zone is yielding uncontested looks.
Will Garza find his footing? Considering the year The Peacock has had, it feels unfair to call out his last two performances where he’s shot just 15/36 and turned the ball over six times. The season is long and these games happen over the course of a 20-game conference schedule. But if Iowa is going to win today, they’ll need more of the best Luka can provide. If he’s able to get it going down low and goad Cockburn into foul trouble, it’ll do wonders for the Hawkeye offense.
Opponent: Illinois Fighting Illini
Stat Preview: Link
Betting Lines by William Hill: Iowa -5; O/U 146.5; Iowa -190/Illinois +170
Game time: 12:00 PM CST // Monday, February 2, 2020
Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena // Iowa City, IA
Online/Mobile: FOX SPORTS GO
Radio: Hawkeye Radio Network
Online Listening: HRN
Live Stats: Sidearm Stats
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