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Luka & Co. to welcome Illinois back from long layoff

Maybe the best matchup of the season.

NCAA Basketball: Indiana at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini will square off against the Hawkeyes in Champaign on Friday night, with the Illini coming off an extended break following a postponement of their contest against Michigan State. It’s been a while, but Illinois hasn’t played since its bounceback win over Penn State.

In that time, Iowa has suffered a surprising home loss to Indiana. The Hawkeyes had an abnormally poor offensive game, thanks in part due to the good on ball defense forcing steady contributors like Jordan Bohannon to go scoreless and CJ Frederick being out of the game down the stretch.

The Illini will have to duplicate that type of defensive effort to give themselves a good chance to win in this one. Let’s break down who the key contributors will be for the Hawkeyes.

Key Players

As its recent loss to Indiana proved, Iowa’s perimeter shooting is key to their success. Fifth-year senior and Iowa’s all-time leader in three-point field goals, Jordan Bohannon (9.8 PPG, 4.7 APG, 37.5% from 3), is always a threat to get hot from deep at any time. However, he’s buoyed by the presence of other strong shooters in Joe Wieskamp (14.5 PPG, 43.5% from 3) and CJ Fredrick (9.1 PPG, 50% from 3), so the Illini can’t afford to singularly focus on just one of Iowa’s perimeter threats.

This keeps the middle open for National Player of the Year candidate Luka Garza (26.9 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 46.2% from 3), who has the versatility to operate from both inside and outside the paint.

Head coach Fran McCaffrey benefits from a deep bench as well, with nine players averaging double digit minutes per game.

Versatile wings like Keegan Murray (6.7 PPG, 1.2 BPG, 1.1 SPG) can come in and make life difficult for the Illini offensively while adding some offensive punch himself. All this adds up to a team that tops the current KenPom rankings for offensive efficiency, so the Illini will likely have their hands full in this one.

Game Prediction

As recent matchups have shown, Kofi Cockburn can be exposed defensively when he gets pulled away from the basket. Iowa will be able to do exactly that with Garza’s inside/outside versatility, so Kofi may be less of a factor in shot deterrence inside as he has to respect Garza’s 3-point shooting.

Giorgi Bezhanishvili may be a key X-factor in this one on the defensive end and with his passing ability from the post offensively. Trent Frazier will have to continue his strong on-ball defense to keep Bohannon in check, and Ayo Dosunmu will have to be engaged defensively against strong scorers in Wieskamp and/or Fredrick.

While the Hawkeyes boast impressive depth, the Illini do as well, with strong defensive performers in Da’Monte Williams and Jacob Grandison. Both will have to be threats from the perimeter and minimize the impact of Iowa’s shooters defensively to give the Illini a chance to win.

Foul shooting and foul trouble will likely be a major factor in this one given the matchup between Cockburn and Garza and whoever is ahead in these regards has the best chance to win. If the Illini can play their game in the fast break and dominate on the boards and with points in the paint, the Illini should come out with the win.

However, the Illini will struggle if they find themselves in a perimeter shooting match with the Hawkeyes.

Big Picture

The Illini are still in thick of things as far as the Big Ten title is concerned, and this matchup will likely go a long way to determining who has what it takes to claim the regular season crown come March.

This will be a great opportunity to see if/how the Illini have grown since their recent home struggles against Maryland and Ohio State.