To help us prepare, Drew Pastorek of The Champaign Room traded Q&As with us. I was a little delayed in getting responses over to him so we’ll update the post when those make their way to the site. Until then, let’s get to know a little more about this Illinois team.
1) Illinois entered the season as one of three Big Ten teams in the AP top 10 and sit at 10-5, ranked 19th. How has the season so far stacked up to those preseason expectations?
Considering the preseason hype, you can’t help but be a tad bit disappointed. Clobbering Duke on the road was certainly a highlight and showed what the Illini could be — they’re tantalizingly good. But that’s also why they can be very frustrating to watch. Final Four-caliber teams make free throws, aren’t careless with the ball, and play hard for 40 minutes — not 25 or 30.
I’m not ready to jump off a ledge — the Illini are absolutely an NCAA tournament team and has just as good a chance as anybody not named Gonzaga or Baylor. But now is the time to show up and show out.
2) Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn returned as perhaps the most potent 1-2 punch in the Big Ten and have seen their statistics improve across the board. What has been most exciting about seeing their performance this year and where can they still improve?
My favorite thing about watching Ayo this season is that you can really tell he took NBA evaluators’ advice to heart. He’s improved as a three-point shooter, he’s gotten physically bigger and stronger, and he’s willing to get teammates involved more. Ayo has taken on the leadership role since arriving in Champaign and has carried his “#UnfinishedBusiness” mantra into this season. He is incredibly motivated and passionate. If I had a critique of Ayo it’s that he can be too passive and too unselfish.
The most impressive thing about Kofi to me is that he utilizes his size without getting into foul trouble (36 fouls in 15 games). He has always been a tremendous rebounder, but to average a double-double while playing against the toughest competition in the country really shows me he’s committed to honing his craft. Kofi is getting his high-percentage shots to fall at an epic rate (70%) and he’s been more willing to dunk — if I was 7-feet tall and 300 pounds I would literally stuff it every time. He has regressed as a free throw shooter and still brings the ball down too much for a center, but he’s almost impossible to defend one-on-one.
3) The Illini have started slow in multiple games throughout the season - what has plagued them in these situations and how do you think they’ll look to avoid such an issue against Iowa?
Honestly? I...don’t know. This has been a recurring problem throughout the Brad Underwood era. Some point to it as a coaching deficiency, but a veteran team shouldn’t have a problem getting “up” for important games. The coaches shouldn’t have to remind players that the Big Ten is, you know, hard. What’s compounded the issue is that it feels like every time Illinois has a long drought the opposing team can’t miss a shot. Like I said earlier, this team is REALLY good, but expecting to “flip the switch” every game is not a good habit.
Iowa has had difficulty guarding the dribble, whereas one the Illini’s strengths is attacking the cup. I think it behooves Illinois to focus on penetrating the lane — don’t get too three-happy early on.
4) In addition to having the #2 offense in conference-only play, Illinois also has the #2 defense by points/possession. What has made them uniquely balanced on both sides of the floor?
Illinois has shot the ball MUCH better this year, especially from long range. If you told me entering this season that Illinois would have a better three-point percentage than Iowa I never would’ve believed you. Da’Monte Williams literally went an entire calendar month last season without scoring a point, now he’s the leading three-point shooter in the nation. Adam Miller, Jacob Grandison, Trent Frazier & Ayo are also shooting better than 36% from long distance. Defensively, the Illini force lots of turnovers, are terrific in transition, and are elite on the glass, leading the conference in rebounding margin.
5) Finally, who ya got and why?
As an Illini fan living in Cedar Rapids...Illinois HAS to win this game, just so I can shut up my wife and all our friends. All kidding aside, Illinois already blew two home games against Maryland & Ohio State. A third home loss would be especially painful in a conference where there’s little margin for error. This would be an awesome resume-booster for Illinois, and at some point they have beat a top B1G team. This game should be entertaining as hell, and these teams don’t exactly like each other. I think Illinois prevails in a tight one.
Thanks again to Drew, who you can find on Twitter @kerotsap (truly an incredible handle, imo). The Champaign Room is @Champaign_Room on the dreaded bird app. My Q&A will be shared as soon as I get my answers over to them!