This has been quite the season. The highs have been high. The lows have been low. And right when you think you have this team pegged, they go and do something completely unexpected. I've already referred to it as a "roller coaster" but let's recap just to try and understand the absurdity of it.
In the span of almost four months we've seen: Iowa get blown out by Texas, only to rebound and beat North Carolina in Chapel Hill; ugly second half losses against Iowa State and Northern Iowa, only to begin the Big Ten schedule 4-1, including beating Ohio State twice; three straight losses, only to win their next two games by an average of 17 points; lose the following two games by an average of 5 points, only to win their next two games by an average of 31 points.
So what the hell is going on with this team?
Just when we think the Hawkeyes are good, they suck. And just when we think they suck, they are good again. Sure, the truth lies somewhere in the middle, but even for a pretty good team, Iowa is still wildly inconsistent. So much so that the numbers don't really know what the hell to make of them. Kenpom has had this team ranked as low as the mid-to-low 40s and as high as the mid-to-low 20s, with stops just about everywhere in between. And if you look at the standard deviation of Iowa's efficiency margin (offensive efficiency minus defensive efficiency) this year, they are easily the most erratic team from game-to-game.
Illinois, meanwhile, has not had the year that a lot of their diehard fans were expecting. They've got a few nice wins on the season, but Kenpom currently projects them to finish 9-9 in the conference. That would be a slight improvement over John Groce's first two years as head coach of the Fighting Illini, but a bit more improvement would certainly be welcome.
Of course, that's not to say that this Illinois team is garbage; this team definitely has some very good players. The main issue seems to be that they are a bit young in some spots, and still look to be a year away. But with the recent return from injury of veteran guard, Rayvonte Rice, this Illini team becomes a little bit scarier. They already possess a tough defense, but Rice has also shown he can put the ball in the basket at a decent rate. So that could be an issue for whoever draws Illinois in the Big Ten Tournament come March, but it could also be an issue for Iowa's defense on Wednesday.
Let's take a look at the match ups.
When Iowa has the Ball
Note: All Kenpom rankings are from Tuesday (when I was writing this), so if they are slightly different at the time you are reading this, that is why. Also, all numbers in the charts in this post are conference-only statistics. Finally, a reminder on how to read this chart: 100 = Division 1 average. Anything above 100 is above average, while anything below 100 is below average. The bigger the number, the better.
On this side of the ball we have a battle between the third best opponent-adjusted offense in the Big Ten and the sixth best defense. Now, we shouldn't short-change Illinois for being sixth best because the Big Ten is full of really good defenses, and it just so happens that sixth place in the conference means you are only allowing 0.93 points per possession (PPP) once you take into account the level of competition being played. That's good. And, as you can see on the chart, Illinois' defense lines up with Iowa's offense fairly well.
Keep in mind, though, that these ratings are raw numbers and have not been adjusted for opponent. So while Illinois has been 2 percentage points worse than the standard Division I team when it comes to contesting shots, it's also good to know that they just played Wisconsin two games ago and the Badgers scored 68 points in just 49 possessions. Everyone has been firebombed by Wisconsin this year, so we know better than to think any less of a team after that happens.
As for the actual in-game match up, Iowa does appear to have a shooting advantage over this Illinois defense. The Illini have a little size down low, but Big Ten teams are making their two point shots at a slightly above average clip against them. And that definitely could be an advantage for an Iowa team that prefers to shoot from inside the arc.
Additionally, Illinois doesn't force a lot of turnovers, so Iowa probably shouldn't be giving the ball away at a high clip in this one. They also do not foul very often, so Iowa probably won't be visiting the free throw line at their usual rate, either. However, even though Groce's team is pretty good when it comes to defensive rebounding, Iowa is still one of the best in the conference at that stat. Hopefully Iowa's superiority will shine through on the boards.
I will be curious to see what Illinois tries to do on defense, given that they usually play a smaller lineup. This team seems to have a bevy of guards, which can come in handy for shooting purposes on offense, but can also be a liability on defense. I imagine Gross will start freshman Leron Black at power forward, just like he's been doing, but this could be a key advantage for Iowa and Aaron White. Black is an outstanding defensive rebounder, but he's had a bit of a fouling problem in limited action this season. Having a freshman with a foul problem going up against one of the best contact-initiators in the country could be bad for the Illini. They could throw 6'10" Maverick Morgan out there or bring on 6'9" Austin Colbert, but both guys are sophomores with even less playing time than Black this season.
In other words, the guards are the strength of this Illinois team, and that strength has gotten stronger with Rayvonte Rice returning from injury recently. Between Rice, Jaylon Tate, and Kendrick Nunn this Illini team has a lot of tough, physical guards to defend the perimeter and keep guys out of the lane. Add in the 6'6" Malcolm Hill, and Illinois is hoping they have the personnel to keep Peter Jok and Jarrod Uthoff from going off on the perimeter.
That being said, I still like Iowa's offense at home. Despite the Hawkeyes being unpredictable this season, they have only been held under 1.00 PPP three times in fourteen conference games.
When Illinois has the Ball
Illinois may be playing well on the defensive end of the floor, but offense certainly has not been their forte against Big Ten teams this season. They currently sport the 11th best offense in the conference, which is exactly the same ranking that Iowa's defense currently holds. For as bad as that sounds, the Hawkeyes' defensive efficiency has actually improved after recent stompings of Rutgers and Nebraska; at 0.97, their defensive PPP is actually under 1.00. Iowa's defense still isn't great, but thanks to the schedule softening up down the stretch, they have held three of their last five opponents under a point per trip, while only doing so once in their first nine Big Ten games.
What we can glean from the four factor chart is that Iowa may have a good chance at holding their third straight opponent under 1.00 PPP. Outside of avoiding empty possessions due to turnovers, this Illini offense has been pretty anemic against Big Ten competition this season. They are offensively challenged in the post, so they rely heavily on production from the Nunn, Hill, and Rice. They have only made 41% of their two point attempts in conference play, which is easily the worst conversion rate of any team in the conference. They haven't grabbed offensive rebounds. And nobody on the team seems capable of drawing fouls at high rate.
What they are decent at, however, is shooting from outside. They take an above average number of threes and they are basically an average three point shooting team in conference play. And their big three scorers all shoot 39% or better from long range. So let this serve as your usual disclaimer: Illinois could be capable of sticking around or winning this game with three point shooting.
Illinois' offense has been bad, but they were also without Rayvonte Rice for a large portion of the conference calendar. Rice has had some struggles since returning, though, and Iowa's defense has looked better against offenses that aren't the cream of the crop recently. I'm going to call this one a draw.
Team Shooting Tendencies
(Shot charts courtesy of Shot Analytics.)
The Illini clearly have their hot and cold spots on the court.
Illinois has been the best free throw shooting team in conference play, but they don't tend to visit the charity stripe all that often. Away from the line, though, Iowa has been the better shooting team from the field.
On defense, even though Iowa has struggled on this side of the ball against Big Ten teams, they have actually done a better job of contesting shots than Illinois has.
When it comes to the types of shot each team takes, Illinois is slightly more reliant on threes than average. Iowa, per usual, is quite a bit more infatuated with twos.
On defense, both teams have given up a lot of three point attempts. That could be something to watch for in this match up, as Illinois' best scorers can really stroke it from downtown. Of course, the same could be said about Uthoff and Jok for Iowa.
Finally, looking at points, the Hawkeyes rely on twos and free throws for scoring. Illinois, on the other hand, gets an above average percentage of their scoring from outside. Also, despite not visiting the line often, they shoot their free ones so well that they still get almost an average amount of production from there.
Opposing Players to Know
Even though he's been hurt this season, I'll start with Rayvonte Rice. The former Drake Bulldog is now a senior and shooting the ball better than he ever has in his career. One caveat to that, however, is that most of his statistics are coming from the non-conference portion of the schedule where the competition wasn't quite as tough.
So is this a shooting renaissance for him? Maybe not. He's only three games removed from injury, but in those three games back, he is a combined 9-31 from the floor. He scored 10 points and 15 points in his last two games (against Wisconsin and Michigan State, respectively), but it's taken him a ton of shots to get there. Maybe Rice is still trying to find a rhythm or maybe he's regressing back to his normal high-volume, mediocre efficiency ways.
That's not to say he's not an offensive threat. At 6'4" and 235 lbs. he's a big, physical guard that loves to attack the rim.
Traditionally, that is where he is at his best. So the game plan has been to keep him out of the lane and force him to pass or shoot a contested jumper. Well, he's shooting 44% from downtown in limited time this year, so that adds another dimension of difficulty to guarding him.
Rice has been coming off the bench, but he still spends a lot of minutes on the court. His veteran smarts, mixed with his physical ability to get to the rim make me worry about Iowa defending him. Peter Jok is still a defensive liability at times, and I don't know that he's got the physicality to bang with Rice. Oglesby may be more willing, but he may not have the quickness. This is where the zone defense could help, pending Illinois' ability to shoot their way out of it.
Last, but certainly not least with Rice, I should add that he's notoriously good at forcing steals and hardly gets whistled for fouls. Iowa's guards should be on the lookout.
After Rice, sophomore youngster Malcolm Hill has been an absolute monster for this team. He's averaging 16 points per game against Big Ten teams and he can shoot from anywhere on the court.
When Illinois goes with a smaller lineup, Hill is versatile enough to move down to the four spot and he can really finish around the rim. But Iowa also needs to be careful on the perimeter because Hill is making almost 41% of his three point attempts this season.
On defense, Hill is also a very good defender. He doesn't have great rebounding, block, or steal numbers, but he's long enough to do some defending in the post and he's athletic enough to defend out on the perimeter. He will likely be tasked with following Jarrod Uthoff around all night.
The other double-digit scorer in conference play for Illinois is Kendrick Nunn. Another sophomore, Nunn is putting home almost 14 points per game thanks to his three point shooting.
As you can see, Nunn shoots from just about everywhere, but he's a better shooter from long range than he is a finisher near the rim. He's another shooter for Iowa to mark.
Once you move past those big three for Illinois, it starts to get a little cloudy.
Jaylon Tate and Ahmad Starks split almost equal minutes at the point position. Neither guy is shooting the ball very well this year, but it's probably worth noting that Tate is a bigger guard that prefers to get to the rim. Starks, on the other hand, struggles to finish in traffic, so he shoots a lot of long twos and threes. Both guys are the main assist men on the team. The younger Tate's numbers have been slightly better in the assist department this year, but the veteran Starks has been much better at hanging onto the ball.
Moving away from the host of guards this Illinois team has, Nnanna Egwu is a senior who feels like he's been in Champaign for 10 years. He's tall and athletic, but that tends to translate for him more on defense than on offense. He's still not a great defensive rebounder given his size, but he is still a damn fine shot-blocker.
After Egwu, though, Illinois has two sophomores and a freshman who play limited minutes. Leron Black is the lone freshman, and he has been starting recently. His main strength thus far has been his defensive rebounding, but he's shown the ability to finish near the basket. He's only 6'7" and has had some fouling issues, though, so it's unclear how he will fair against a bigger Iowa team that draws a lot of whistles.
What Kenpom Thinks
Kenpom Rankings: Iowa #27, Illinois #61
Projected Score: Iowa 68 (79%), Illinois 61 (21%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 1.08, Illinois 0.97
Projected Possessions: 63
The numbers certainly favor Iowa, and I think we all believe the Hawks should beat this Illinois team. However, this Illini defense and their ability to make threes on the other end of the court present an opportunity to make this game closer than we would all like.
That being said, Iowa's offense shouldn't be completely stymied, either. Leron Black on Aaron White is a potential match up for Iowa to exploit. Jarrod Uthoff has 3 extra inches he can use to shoot over the top of Malcolm Hill. Gabe Olaseni and Adam Woodbury present different sets of problems for Illinois' lack of depth down low. And, finally, if Peter Jok continues to be on his offensive game, he can provide another deep threat for Iowa's offense.
I wouldn't say I'm totally relaxed going into this game, but I can see clear reasons for optimism. I will stop short of saying just how much I like Iowa in this game because I feel like they always seem to lose when I'm feeling the most confident in them. This is simply an Iowa team that doesn't lend itself to predictability very well.