Like the Fighting Illini, the Iowa Hawkeyes’ stock is rising. I don’t think many folks expected Illinois to be first in the Big Ten in early February. Even fewer probably expected Iowa to be this competitive.
Both sides have been playing very well of late. The red-hot Illini (16-5; 8-2 B1G) are winners of seven straight and boast the conference’s best scoring defense. The Hawkeyes (15-6; 6-4) had won five in a row until Thursday’s loss at Maryland.
Illinois and Iowa square off at 12 p.m. Sunday from Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Here’s a preview.
How They’ve Done So Far
The Hawkeyes have epitomized toughness all year long. They played a very demanding out-of-conference schedule, defeating Texas Tech, Cincinnati, Iowa State & Syracuse, while losing to DePaul and still-unbeaten San Diego State. Only one of those matchups (DePaul) was in Iowa City.
Coach Fran McCaffery’s squad has also withstood a litany of injuries and health-related problems — guard Jordan Bohannon attempted a comeback from offseason hip surgery before ultimately getting shut down for the year; starting power forward Jack Nunge suffered a torn ACL in Iowa’s fifth game; point guard C.J. Fredrick has fought through quad and foot injuries; Connor McCaffery missed time due to illness, while his younger brother, Patrick, has played in only two games because of residual complications from thyroid cancer. At one point, Iowa was down to just eight scholarship players. The fact that they’ve had this type of success so far is remarkable (look at North Carolina’s woes as a prime example of what could have happened).
Players to Watch
Simply put, the Hawkeyes would be completely lost without Luka Garza. The 6-foot-11, 260-pound junior has been putting up insane stats this season — 23.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks per game. He’s also not afraid to step out and shoot from the perimeter, making 37% of his threes (22-for-59). Garza has shouldered the burden and is a legitimate National Player of the Year candidate. Kofi Cockburn will likely face the stiffest test of his young career. He struggled in the rematch versus Michigan and had a hard time against Daniel Oturu for much of the Minnesota game. If Kofi can neutralize Garza (he was just 9-of-19 against Maryland) it will go a long way in helping Illinois’ cause.
While Garza has deservedly gotten most of the shine, sophomore wing Joe Wieskamp has also put together a fine season, averaging 15 points and six rebounds per game. Wieskamp is a career 41% shooter from long range and torched Illinois in last year’s matchup in Iowa City, shooting a perfect 8-for-8 — including 6-of-6 from deep — and going 2-for-2 from the foul line.
With the Illini winning against Minnesota I’m not as concerned with the outcome of this game. Illinois has claimed three impressive road wins already (@ Purdue, @ Wisconsin, @ Michigan), but the cynic in me just doesn’t see it happening this time.
The Hawkeyes — whether their fans choose to believe it or not — get a preponderance of calls in their favor, especially against Illinois. Remember the game in Champaign two years ago? The Illini were leading by 20+ points in the first half and STILL had eight fewer free throws. Until I see it not happen...I’m going to expect it to happen.
Both Iowa & Illinois get to the free throw line a lot, but “home cooking” seems to apply to every team EXCEPT Illinois, so I’m expecting a major edge for the Hawkeyes in that category. I also have a weird feeling in my gut that Kofi and/or Giorgi will be in foul trouble for most of the game.
This team’s defensive turnaround has been something to behold, but the offense has still looked constipated at times. Maybe a returning Alan Griffin can help. The Illini’s win streak has to end at some point, and I think Sunday will be the day. I hope I’m wrong. Final: Iowa 69, Illinois 62