The Hawkeyes come into Thursday’s game winless in the Big Ten with an 0-5 conference record and a 9-9 record overall. Illinois and Iowa are the only two teams in the Big Ten without a conference win.
Iowa returns Big Ten All-Freshmen Team members Jordan Bohannon and Tyler Cook, as well as the Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, Nicholas Baer.
Iowa’s best win came against Colorado, who knocked off both highly ranked Arizona and Arizona State last week. Iowa also struggled mightily at their Thanksgiving Holiday Tournament, the Cayman Islands Classic. The Hawks suffered two bad losses to Louisiana-Lafayette and South Dakota State before winning the 7th place game against UAB.
However, Iowa has been an elite passing team this year. The Hawkeyes are 5th in the nation in assists per game with 19.2. The only teams with more assists per game are Michigan State, Duke, Creighton and TCU. Those teams are a combined 54-9, and all ranked in the Top 25. Iowa has as many losses as those four teams combined.
The Hawks are also top 60 in points, rebounds and blocks per game. Scoring and raw counting numbers have not been a problem for Iowa. They have scored 90 points or more seven times this season and have won all seven of those games. Iowa’s problem is they haven’t been able to stop anyone on the defensive end this year. They are coming off back-to-back losses in which they gave up over 90 points to Ohio State and Maryland.
Iowa has great size down low, which will be a problem for the Illini, but they don’t have many players who can defend the perimeter at an effective level. If Illinois’ guards can take advantage of the Hawkeyes perimeter defense, they can get the bigs out of position and have a chance to make some plays.
The biggest loss for Fran McCaffrey’s program from a year ago is All-Big Ten First Teamer, Peter Jok. Jok scored 20 points per game and grabbed 5.5 rebounds per game last year for the Hawkeyes. He was also their best perimeter defender and would often guard the other team’s best player down the stretch.
McCaffrey had several star freshmen a year ago and he has continued to bring in good recruiting classes to Iowa City. Iowa has Freshmen a set of freshman that both stand at 6-foot-11. Luke Garza is from Washington, D.C and is averaging 10 points, six rebounds and more than a block a game. Jack Nunge is averaging seven points and three rebounds a game.
Fran McCaffrey’s son, Connor McCaffrey, is also on this year’s squad. McCaffrey was supposed to redshirt this season and spend the year playing for the Iowa baseball team, leaving him with eligibility to play under his father for the next four years. However, the unexpected transfer of Christian Williams left the Hawkeyes thin at point guard behind Jordan Bohannon. McCaffrey decided to forgo his redshirt season and has played in four games this season.
Fran also has his second son Pat McCaffrey, a Top-40 2019 prospect, committed to the program. Fatherhood is a pretty sweet recruiting tool.
Iowa is a deep and balanced team. The Hawkeyes have 11 players averaging double-digit minutes on the season. They aren’t necessarily dependent on one player to carry them.
With that being said, Tyler Cook is the star of the Iowa Hawkeyes. In order for them to win, Bohannon and Moss have to help carry the scoring load, but Cook is at the top of the scouting report. The six-foot-nine St. Louis native is the leading scorer and rebounder for Iowa with 14.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game. Iowa will throw three other bigs, Garza, Nunge and Pemsl, at the Illinois front line in addition to Cook.
With so many big men to turn to, Illinois will not be able to focus all of their attention on Cook. It will be up to Black and Nichols to guard him one on one and to keep him away from the offensive glass. Iowa’s frontline is a matchup nightmare for Illinois, so I’m expecting a double-double from Cook.
Before the season I thought Iowa would be a bubble team. They return everyone but Jok. Last year they were a team full of promising freshmen and sophomores, the arrow was definitely pointing up. As previously mentioned, they have a terrifying front line built for the Big Ten. Illinois does not. However, the lack of effort on the defensive end has been astonishing at times.
I really don’t know why, but I’m going to pick Illinois. I think Illinois wins because this game is being played in Champaign, and the Illini role players will step up. I think Illinois’ defense and energy will frustrate Iowa enough to overcome the disparity in other facets of the game.
Illinois 82, Iowa 76.