What happened last year:
Iowa was one of two teams (Northwestern) that Illinois defeated twice in Big Ten play last year. The first matchup was at home for the Illini, and it was a convincing 75-64 victory. Te’Jon Lucas made his first career start, racking up six points and six assists, and Michael Finke led the team in scoring with 17 points. The Illini shot 55 percent from the field in the first half and never trailed in the game. It was an impressive showing offensively for the Illini. The second matchup, in Iowa City, was the same result. Malcolm Hill notched 21 points and Te’Jon Lucas blocked what would’ve been a go-ahead layup from Jordan Bohannon with two minutes left to preserve the Illini victory. Although the 70-66 win was much closer than the first matchup, the Illini held Iowa to just 38.9 percent shooting from the field. The Illini were particularly balanced on offense in the second game, with Jalen Coleman-Lands, Finke, and Lucas all notching 12 points.
Why Illinois could win:
Two words: Peter Jok. He’s gone, and he not only led Iowa in scoring (19.9 points per game), but he led the entire conference in that category. With Jok gone, Fran McCaffery and Co. will be looking for answers on offense. In addition, Illini fans are very excited about coach Brad Underwood’s high-tempo offense. Underwood led Oklahoma State to being the most efficient offense in the NCAA last season. This should style should fit well with many of the pieces the staff has assembled, from Mark Smith and Trent Frazier to returners Michael Finke and Leron Black. With Illinois’ (potentially) potent offense and the Hawkeyes losing their best player, it is entirely possible the Illini come out on top in their only game against Iowa on January 11.
Why Illinois could lose:
Just as Iowa lost its offensive leader in Jok, Illinois lost Malcolm Hill who was third in the conference at 17.2 points per game, not to mention Tracy Abrams, Maverick Morgan, and Coleman-Lands. Although Iowa lost Jok, the Hawkeyes are still returning their second and third leading scorers, Tyler Cook and Jordan Bohannon, respectively, who could definitely step in and make up for lost points on offense. Bohannon, just a freshman last year, averaged over 10 points per game and looked like a legit floor general at many points during the season. In his final three games of the 2016-2017 season, he posted at least 19 points and 10 assists. Illinois also lost Morgan and Mike ThorneJr. While not much of an offensive threat, Thorne helped the Illini not be totally outmanned in the paint at moments. Iowa boasts two 6-foot-11 players in Jack Nunge and Luka Garza. Although they are both freshman, they could cause problems for the Illini on defense with Finke being the tallest listed player.
Illinois is playing Iowa at home towards the beginning of the Big Ten season. Although the team may still be getting used to running Underwood’s offense, getting the chance to work out most of the kinks in non-conference play (especially the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and the soon-to-be-exciting-again Braggin’ Rights game) will bode well for the Illini. The Illini should be able to take the victory over the Hawkeyes if guard play is what everyone expects and Finke and Black can churn out some points in the front court.