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Previewing Iowa at Illinois

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A double-bye is on the line in Champaign

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Your, my, and our Iowa Hawkeyes (22-8, 12-7) wrap up the regular season with a visit to Champaign to play the Illinois Fighting Illini (21-8, 14-5).

Iowa continues to be red freaking hot, winning 8 of 9 and 5-straight going into the season finale. They rectified the lone blemish during the run in Ann Arbor Thursday night, winning 82-71 in a game they never trailed. The win keeps Iowa in fourth and with the inside track for the last double-bye. Hold that thought on seeding…we’ll get there.

Iowa’s stats during this run are truly incredible. Take a look at this tweet:

Then this one:

Those are incredible stats. That offensive rating is insane. Unsustainable of course, but still insane. Those aren’t the only eye-popping stats - they’ve won all 8 games in this run by double-digits, with an averaging margin of victory a shade over 17 points a game. It’s the most regular season wins Iowa has had under Fran McCaffery. This is just a remarkable job all-around, regardless of what happens with the Illini.


Illinois’s had a funky season. Some of that has been injury/suspension-driven. Kofi Cockburn missed 5 games this year, including 3 to start the year due to an NCAA violation that was legal under Name, Image, and Likeness, but took place in June prior to that legislation becoming law in Illinois in July, so that earned him a stupid 3-game ban. Let’s just hope stupid shit like that is a thing of the past. Andre Curbelo, a player that seemed poised for a breakout year, has played in only 15 of 29 games. Illinois is a different team when he’s at his best - his first game back after a lengthy absence was their first matchup with Purdue, a 2-overtime thriller in which he scored 20 points, grabbed 6 rebounds, and had 3 assists.

The Illini won their lone meeting with Iowa this year, edging the Hawks 87-83 in Carver in one of those stupid December league games. The win extended their winning streak over Iowa to four. The story of the game was simple - Illinois dominated Iowa on the glass, going +29, 52-23. Despite that deficit on the glass, Iowa clawed back before coming up just short. It was a weird game overall - Illinois lead by 10 early, then Iowa went on a 21-2 run to take the lead behind an explosion from the bench unit. Illinois then responded with a run of their own, a 17-5 run before half, and they led the rest of the way. Iowa forced 18 turnovers which they turned into 26 points and scored a boatload of points in transition (17), but the rebounding deficit was too much.

Projected Lineup

C - Kofi Cockburn (Jr., 7-0, 285) 21.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 0.8 bpg, 60.1 FG%
G - Alfonso Plummer (Sr., 6-1, 182) 15.1 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 44.0 FG%, 42.0 3P%
G - Trent Frazier (Sr., 6-2, 175) 12.5 ppg, 2.9 rpg, 4.0 apg, 41.8 FG%, 35.3 3P%
G - Jacob Grandison (Sr., 6-6, 205) 10.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.4 apg, 45.5 FG%, 41.0 3P%
G - Da’Monte Williams (Sr., 6-3, 215) 4.1 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 2.7 apg, 30.1 FG%, 32.0 3P%

(Stats via Sports-Reference)

This senior-laden group starts with the junior, Cockburn. He’s a total load in the middle that can feast on most teams in the league. He had 17 points in the first meeting with Iowa along with 18 boards. Some of his other games this year - 37 points and 12 rebounds on 16-19 shooting (!!) in the lone meeting with Wisconsin (of course Wisconsin only had to play Illinois once), 27-7 against Michigan, but in Illinois’s tight win over Penn State Thursday, he had just 11 points and 6 rebounds (to be fair, Penn State is probably one of the few teams in the league with a big capable of bodying Cockburn straight-up).

Illinois’s backcourt is also dynamic, from Plummer to Frazier to Grandison. All three can beat you. Plummer, a Utah transfer, has had some amazing games of late - 26 in back-to-back games with Ohio State and Michigan - but then had 5 points Thursday against Penn State. Frazier, Jordan Bohannon’s Illinois companion in old man basketball, is also a tough player and a good defender. He had 18 points and 8 rebounds in Iowa City. Overall, it’s a good ballclub that, on their day, can compete with anyone in the country. Throw in the arena, a genuine house of horrors for Iowa historically, and it will take everything the Hawks have to win this.

SEEDING PLUS A QUESTION

Seeding going into the last week of the season is simple from an Iowa (and Illinois) point of view. Iowa is currently in the last double-bye spot, but they have competition in the form of Ohio State and Rutgers. Win, and Iowa’s in the double-bye. Lose, and Iowa has to hope that Ohio State and Rutgers also lose. Those teams play earlier in the day, against Michigan and Penn State respectively, so Iowa will know what they have to do by the time they tip off. The lowest Iowa can drop is to a 6-seed (Iowa loss, plus wins for both Ohio State and Rutgers; a win bumps Ohio State to 13-7, while Rutgers and Iowa would tie at 12-8 but Rutgers has that head-to-head win). Rutgers can still get to the double-bye with a win plus Iowa and Ohio State loses, as they would own the tie-breakers over both. Iowa would be the 5 in that scenario courtesy of their win over the Buckeyes.

The game could mean something for the Illini as well - Illinois has to hope for some magic earlier in the day, as a Nebraska win in Madison would mean Illinois can still snag a piece of the regular season title and the top seed in Indianapolis given they handled Wisconsin in Champaign (again, of course Wisconsin only had to play Illinois once).

It could also be meaningless for both teams if Wisconsin, Michigan, and Penn State all win. If those teams win, Iowa’s in fourth regardless and Illinois is in second or third (second if they win, third if Iowa wins and Purdue wins; Purdue holds the head-to-head over Illinois, having won both meetings).

Can Iowa rebound against this team?

The first meeting was Iowa’s nadir in their early rebounding woes. Getting hammered on the glass by 29 is almost unheard of. Part of it was Illinois chasing a ton of long rebounds to spots Iowa had just abandoned in attacking the glass or leaking out for a fast break, so it wasn’t completely Iowa getting crushed. And it didn’t help that Keegan was still a little banged up from the ankle injury he sustained at Virginia the week prior (speaking of injuries, keep an eye on Patrick McCaffery; he was labeled as questionable Saturday due to his hip. If he’s not 100 percent, rest him). Still, the number was jarring. Fortunately, Iowa has done a much better job on the glass of late - since the main portion of league play started, the only teams to really hammer Iowa on the glass (10+) are Wisconsin, Rutgers, Penn State in double overtime, and…that’s it. So Iowa’s been much better here.

As has been the case for Iowa all year, if they can punch above their weight on the glass, this game will go down to the wire. It’s a bad matchup with Cockburn - he can own the paint by himself and he’s just a legitimately huge human being. Filip Rebraca has been a great addition to the Iowa program and plays his ass off - he did well on Hunter Dickinson on Thursday and has battled physical teams all year. This is a different challenge.