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#7 Hawkeyes renew rivalry at #19 Illinois

Iowa went 1-1 in hotly contested games against the Illini last season

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The #7 Iowa Hawkeyes (12-3, 6-2) head the #19 Illinois Fighting Illini (10-5, 6-3) in their only matchup of the season tomorrow night in Champaign. With second place in the Big Ten on the line, Iowa will be looking to stop their losing streak at one and Illinois is trying to win their second game in a row.

The matchup will be the only time these two are scheduled to square off this season, an absolute disappointment which serves to heighten the intensity tomorrow night.

Illinois has been an interesting team this season as they often look the part in the form of the one-two punch of Ayo Dosunmu & Kofi Cockburn and solid shooting around them. Their offense and defense have both improved according to KenPom’s efficiency yet they often feel like they’re simply missing something. They have unexpected home losses to both Maryland and Ohio State and less surprising losses at Rutgers and Missouri and in a neutral site showdown with Baylor.

Their best win is probably against Indiana, which is more than Iowa can say about the Hoosiers, or a win at Duke. Although they’ve struggled to get it going in other wins (Ohio and Northwestern stick out here).

Brad Underwood is in his fourth season at Illinois and has accumulated a 57-54 record (30-37 in conference).

Three guys

Ayo Dosunmu (G, 6’5”, 200 lbs): Dosunmu was one of two Illinois players who declared for the NBA draft before returning to school with something to prove and Dosunmu has lived up to the billing. After struggling from range in his two previous seasons, the star guard has seen his efficiency ramp up amidst an increase in usage, as well. His 39% shooting from deep is the key improvement and he’s among the conference’s best at getting to the line, as well, where he’s shooting 82%.

He torched Iowa down the stretch of their game at Illinois last year and will be the guy with the ball in his hands with the game on the line. Just a great player who makes the game better. For

Kofi Cockburn (C, 7’0”, 285 lbs): Cockburn returned from mulling the draft and turned into a Transformer down low, shooting 70% and drawing 7 fouls/40 minutes. He averages 17 points & 10 rebounds as the only Big Ten player averaging a double-double.

While Luka Garza found success against Cockburn in both games last year, often stretching his game to the three point line, he poses serious concern down low with his huge frame. Looming large is any foul trouble the Jamaican may force Iowa into and hamstring Fran McCaffery’s ability to max LG’s time on the floor.

Da’Monte Williams (G, 6’3”, 215 lbs): This guy went the month of January last year without making a three (0/10) before closing 9/16. He’s picked up where he’s left off at 61% so far this season as the best in the nation, though he takes about two per game.

It’s fair to wonder if maybe this is just a hot stretch as he shot 27% from deep before this season and remains a 68% free throw shooter, but his improvement is indicative of Illinois turning from a liability from deep into a bona fide shooting team. Iowa will have to guard just about everyone, which stresses an already shaky defense.

Three questions

What is up with CJ Fredrick? This is an answer we’re very unlikely to receive an answer from but Iowa very likely will have to mitigate his absence whether he is held out all game or simply realizes he can’t go like what happened in the Indiana game.

I see Iowa has two obvious options to go without Fredrick in the starting lineup: big or small. Going with Jack Nunge offers a mismatch but comes with its own downside as he is forced to guard a smaller, quicker player. It probably forces Iowa into zone as well and Illinois has plenty of zone busters.

Joe Toussaint, however, seems like the stronger option. He provides a speed which cannot be replicated and can force Illinois’s hands offensively and defensively. It also enables Jordan Bohannon to play off ball as a facsimile of Fredrick.

Personally, Keegan Murray is probably off the table as a true x-factor off the bench in addition to recent bouts of foul trouble.

Can Iowa match Illinois’s physicality? The Hawkeyes penchant for finesse came home to roost a bit in their loss to Indiana. Most notably, Joe Wieskamp was locked down after scoring 13 points in the first 10 minutes as he struggled to get clean releases off the ball. Jordan Bohannon was sideways all night. Luka Garza was good, as he always is, but inefficient (for him).

Iowa will need to play this game much differently than they have many of their prior games so far this season. The next 16 days offer Iowa four opportunities against top 30 ballclubs (per KenPom) and two more against Michigan State. Strong offense can absolutely carry them tonight, as well as the rest of the season, but they will need to be ready for a rock fight.

Will the Hawks succumb to another scoreless stretch? Coming into the season, I figured Iowa would never be faced with a situation where they were outscored 23-3 over 10 minutes of basketball. It felt inconceivable considering the offensive firepower they had returning.

Unfortunately that is exactly what happened as Iowa’s shooting woes enabled quick double teams from IU and forced Luka Garza into four turnovers which tied his career high and contributed to the second highest turnover rate of Iowa’s season.

In the past, Fran McCaffery simply draws up his best play to get Garza the ball and Iowa executes it to get the Hawks back on track. Then he does it again, and again. But with a viable one-on-one defender in Cockburn, it ramps up the pressure on non-Peacocks. Will Iowa have somebody step up?

The last time Iowa went to Champaign, they returned with a loss they could not avenge in the conference tournament. Now is the time to do it and reassert themselves as the team to beat in the Big Ten Conference with Michigan out on COVID-19 protocol.

They’ve had plenty of time to think about that day, and last week. Iowa needs to prove the effort against IU was an aberration. Who better to do it against than the team at the current top of the rivalry pecking order?