It’s the Big Ten season finale against the rival Iowa Hawkeyes.
The Illini have lost five straight games to Iowa — their longest current losing streak against any Big Ten Team. Brad Underwood, fresh off of receiving (and earning) a contract extension and raise, looks to upend that streak against the over-exuberant Fran McCaffery on the opposite sideline.
Iowa’s most recent game was a home loss to the Purdue Boilermakers back on Tuesday. The Hawkeyes have a solid tournament resume and will be in. Good wins include games against ranked foes Texas Tech, Maryland, Michigan, Illinois, Penn State, Ohio State and Wisconsin. The only true bad loss on the schedule was a home game in November to the now 15-15 DePaul Blue Demons.
What Needs To Happen Against the Iowa Hawkeyes
Make Luka Garza work & Kofi Cockburn has got to be better this time
The Big Ten’s best player is so dominant once he gets the ball in the post, there’s a reason why he is a frontrunner to win the Big Ten Player of the Year Award, and maybe even some national awards, too. Garza is first in the Big Ten in points per game and fourth in rebounds per game. He’s not a lethal three-point shooter, but when left open or he gets a good luck, he’ll knock them down. He certainly did so against Illinois in the first matchup, making 4-of-9 from behind the arc.
Giorgi Bezhanishvili has got to play with such tenacity (smart tenacity), he’s got to make Luka Garza expend as much energy as possible. Kofi Cockburn is the rim protector and an excellent help defender, but when Giorgi is in the game coming off the bench — Giorgi will be assigned to guard Garza and battle with him down low and cover him when he’s at the top of the key.
Garza can lull teams to sleep. He can go several minutes without scoring before putting up a real quick 8-to-10 points on the board in just two minutes. It happened in the first matchup between these two teams, and it could happen again.
Kofi Cockburn Improvement
This is not intended to come down hard on Kofi Cockburn — he’s had as good a freshman season as Illini nation has ever seen from a big man, and playing well in these environments on a consistent basis is challenging. He played great against Indiana and against Penn State — and he’s been solid in several of Illinois Big Ten wins.
In Iowa’s triumph over Illinois in the first matchup last month, Cockburn was held to just six points and six rebounds with no blocks. Both he and Giorgi combined for seven turnovers. The Illini had no blocks in the game.
Compared to the last Iowa game, Cockburn has to do a better job of protecting the paint and making his presence known. Coach Underwood talks about challenging Kofi, and how Kofi loves learning and embraces getting better each day. Underwood likely put on the tape of that first Iowa game, showed it to Kofi and said: “You can’t do better than that? That was the best you’ve got? Come on. You have another chance to prove something here against Garza and the Hawkeyes. What are you going to do about it?”
Challenge accepted. It has to be.
Be the more emotionally tough team, Krush go Krazy
Luka Garza flexes and showboats when he scores. Head coach Fran McCaffery rides the refs and his players as hard as any coach in the business — which is saying a lot considering Tom Izzo, Brad Underwood, Archie Miller and Pat Chambers are all Big Ten head coaches who are known for their intensity and bench antics.
Remember this from a month ago?
Little verbal confrontation between Fran McCaffery and Illinois assistant Ron “Chin” Coleman after the Iowa win. pic.twitter.com/YguUYJJeGO— Jeff Goodman (@GoodmanHoops) February 2, 2020
It’s hard to imagine the animosity not resurfacing for this rematch. Garza will flex and trash talk. Fran will go ballistic — he received a technical foul against Purdue earlier last week. The Orange Krush and SFC will be on edge given this rivalry game and given what’s happened in the recent and not-so-recent past.
The Illini coaches and players have to be more level-headed than their opponent. Being at home gives the Illini an advantage, but they cannot get technicals and by virtue of that, they cannot take their own crowd out of the game with technicals and long stoppages in play. It’s exactly what Iowa wants. Be smart. Rise above it.
I was an Orange Krush member. It’s the Krush’s job to get under the skin of the opponent, and coach Fran McCaffery is the ideal villain to go after on Sunday. Chant his name nonstop. Push him to the breaking point, which is fairly easy.
Orange Krush members, I encourage you to read this thread. It should pump you up:
Like, this isn't the time to be cute. If you can set off that sociopath he will explode, and when Fran explodes, his team wilts. Get nasty. Make Whitman have to apologize to the conference. It's the final home game, go out like queens and kings.— Steve (@IlliniToffee) March 6, 2020
It’s Senior Day. To the seniors on the basketball team and to the seniors in the crowd on Sunday, we salute you.