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Game Preview: Illinois vs Iowa

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Following a tough loss at home, the Illini will look to spring an upset on the road against the Iowa Hawkeyes in a pivotal Big Ten battle.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois ESPN Logo

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
8:00 pm CT

Illinois (17-10, 7-7) vs Iowa (17-10, 8-6)

Location: Carver-Hawkeye Arena | Iowa City, IA
Television/Stream: BTN | BTN2Go
Announcers: Kevin Kugler and Shon Morris
Opposing SB Nation SiteBlack Heart Gold Pants

RPI Ranking: Illinois: 58 | Iowa: 55
KenPom Ranking: Illinois: 61 | Iowa: 27

The Illinois Fighting Illini (17-10, 7-7) will head to Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Wednesday for an important matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes (17-10, 8-6). With only four games remaining until the Big Ten tournament and postseason play begins, the Illini find themselves in a precarious situation after dropping a close game at home to Michigan State last weekend. Malcolm Hill and Rayvonte Rice chipped in 17 and 15 points respectively, but it wasn't enough to overcome Sparty.

Currently sitting in eighth in the conference standings, John Groce's squad has some work to do to get a quality seed in the BTT and to hear his team's name called on Selection Sunday. A potential win in Iowa City on Wednesday would be the first step towards an NCAA tournament berth.

The Hawkeyes, in the meantime, are coming off two very impressive victories over Rutgers and Nebraska and are tied with Ohio State for sixth in the standings. Iowa's two-game winning streak has come by an average margin of 31 points, the first time a Hawkeyes team has beaten back-to-back conference opponents by 30 or more points since 1995. They are returning home after thumping the Cornhuskers on the road, 74-46, in a game where they shot 50 percent from the field as well as 50 percent from long range. Aaron White, arguably Iowa's best player, posted his second double-double of the season in Lincoln, accumulating 18 points to go along with 11 rebounds.

If you're an Illini fan (or a Hawkeyes fan for that matter), I'm sure you remember the last time these two teams faced each other well. Did anyone say Jon Ekey for threeeee?

Projected Starters:

Illinois Fighting Illini:

  1. Jaylon Tate | SO
  2. Kendrick Nunn | SO
  3. Malcolm Hill | SO
  4. Leron Black | FR
  5. Nnanna Egwu | SR

Iowa Hawkeyes:

  1. Mike Gesell | JR
  2. Peter Jok | SO
  3. Aaron White | SR
  4. Jarrod Uthoff | JR
  5. Adam Woodbury | JR

Keys to the Game:

1. Defense, Defense, Defense

Iowa has one of the better offenses in the conference and are an impressive 16-1 this year when they score 64 points or more, with the lone loss coming to Iowa State. And speaking of the Cyclones, despite being a contender in the Big Ten this season, some might argue that the Hawkeyes are only the third-best basketball program in their own state behind Northern Iowa (26-2) and Iowa State (20-6). But don't let that fool you; they're still a very good squad. Statistically speaking, they're also the best offensive-rebounding team in the league so you can't give them too many second chance opportunities. Illinois' defense has improved as the season has progressed but it still ranks in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten. I liked when Groce switched to a 1-3-1 trap/press defense against the Spartans, and I could potentially see him going back to it against the Hawkeyes. If you can hold them to under 64 points, you've got a great chance to win the game.

2. Shut down Uthoff's inside game

Jarrod Uthoff has led Iowa in scoring in four of the last six games, and has missed only five free throws since the start of league play. He's a strong presence in the paint averaging nearly seven rebounds per game, but is also a three-point threat (shooting over 40 percent). If the Illinois defense can run him to the three-point line and keep him outside of the paint, I like their chances on the boards, which could ultimately be one of the keys to winning the game.

3. Shoot well

It may seem obvious, but you've got to shoot well, especially on the road, to win big games. The Hawkeyes held their most recent opponent, Nebraska, to 2-of-18 shooting from three-point range. Illinois shot just 2-of-16 from behind the arc against Michigan State. A repeat of that type of shooting night will create an almost impossible obstacle to overcome, especially against a stout Iowa defense that is third in the conference in steals and third in the conference in three-point defense. The Illini will need Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, Ahmad Starks, and Rayvonte Rice will all need to be hitting from deep and cannot afford to have a bad game if they intend to pull off the upset in Iowa City.

Predictions:

TCR Prediction: Iowa 70, Illinois 65

KenPom Prediction: Iowa 68, Illinois 61 (21% W)

It's tough to go into Carver-Hawkeye and pick up a win, but the Illini managed to do it last season at the buzzer. This year, however, I don't think they'll be so lucky. Aaron White and Jarrod Uthoff will prove to be too much and Iowa's loaded offense will simply outperform the Illini's. Make no mistake, it will be a tough and physical game for the full 40 minutes, but the Hawkeyes get the nod at home.