It’s almost time. The No. 19 Illinois Fighting Illini host the No. 7 Iowa Hawkeyes on Friday night in Champaign. It’s no secret that there’s some recent bad blood between these to sides. Here to break it down from Iowa’s perspective is Harrison Starr from our SB Nation sister site, Black Heart Gold Pants.
1. Iowa entered this season as a top-5 team, and is currently 12-3 and No. 7 nationally. Are you satisfied with the results so far? In what areas do you want to see the Hawkeyes improve?
Satisfied is a funny word. I think the better word through 15 games is relieved.
I think the most exciting thing about the team so far is that they have absolutely proven to be a fun team. There are downs, and those downs are certainly frustrating, but I don’t think they’ve been necessarily exposed in surprising ways so far this season. That’s cause enough for satisfaction considering some of the wins were genuinely enjoyable.
The concerning thing, as has been the case with this core, is the defense. It comes and goes and often times it feels like there is one too many leaks for the team to plug in a given game. This is because the man-to-man defense remains deficient. When they overcommit to stopping a great post player, like against IU and Trayce Jackson-Davis, it opened them up to allowing IU to have their best game from deep without really stopping TJD either.
But when the offense is clicking, there are simply not many teams who can keep pace with it, irrespective of how porous the other side of the floor is.
2. How do you look at the Hawkeyes’ matchup against Gonzaga? Most view the Zags and Baylor as being on a different tier (Illinois lost to Baylor earlier this season). What did Iowa learn from that game and do you feel they could compete with Gonzaga if they met again in March?
I agree that there are two teams above the rest of the country, and arguably Gonzaga is well above Baylor. I was legitimately disappointed when that game was called off so we could get a sense of how the two would look against one another.
Anyways, when Iowa played Gonzaga, they couldn’t hit the broadside of the barn. As much as the defense, poor shooting nights —especially from Jordan Bohannon — are the main indicator of whether Iowa will win or lose, as their three worst 3-point percentages are their losses. So Iowa struggled to stress Gonzaga on defense. The Zags were able to have their way offensively, too, which is par for the course for them, but Iowa struggled with rebounding during Gonzaga’s scoring drought so they couldn’t really put a dent in the double digit lead. All of this is without talking about Jalen Suggs having his best game of his season so far.
If Iowa shoots better, it’s a closer game should these two teams face off again, but they have more areas to improve than just that.
3. The Hawkeyes are coming off their worst game of the season. I’ve been on record that I’m not looking forward to seeing Illinois play a ticked-off Iowa team. How do you expect them to respond?
The rhetoric after the IU game was the Hawks were not as focused as they should have been. That was frustrating considering they had about a week off before it. Like you said in our Q&A, a veteran team shouldn’t need to be coached to get up for every Big Ten game.
Luka Garza vowed after the IU loss we would not see that type of mindset from them again, so I do think there will be a desperation from them. I’m hopeful that means increased focus & activity on defense and assertiveness on offense so the Illini physicality does not dictate how the game will go.
4. Indiana didn’t fall prey to the “don’t let Luka beat us” strategy. Garza is gonna get his, and focusing solely on stopping him is a bad plan. Other than Garza, who are you eyeing as a player to watch Friday night?
I think you’re spot on. Over-commitment to stopping LG is a dangerous game to play, especially when teams have viable one-on-one matchups against him. He plays like every shot is going in, so he is susceptible to inefficient games if his shot volume is way up. (11/27 at Minnesota & 10/22 versus Indiana) What really played into IU’s in-game adjustments was simply how poor Iowa was shooting outside of Joe Wieskamp so the Hoosiers were really smart about sending quick and effective double-teams while locking Wieskamp down off the ball.
Wieskamp is the first guy I’ll be eying for Iowa, as he was red hot to start the IU game but was locked down after scoring 13 points in the first 10 minutes. Can he bounce back? Then it comes down to Bohannon who had his worst shooting night after a long stretch of setting the nets on fire. One guy Illini fans may not know who has received utterly rave reviews from Hawkeye fans is Keegan Murray, though. He’s an x-factor as a 6’8” wing who can really do it all off the bench and has athleticism to match Illinois. He might get the start if CJ Fredrick is unable to go.
5. This Iowa team has remarkable chemistry. They’re incredibly unselfish and rarely take bad shots. What do you attribute that to?
It starts, for me, with the fact that every Luka Garza shot is a good shot so guys are very happy to get him the ball. From Garza’s perspective, he returned to challenge for a conference and national title, so the insane numbers he’s posting this season are secondary to his goals.
Then I think it comes down to the personnel matching what Fran McCaffery wants to do offensively. It is not necessarily about running and gunning but pretty much everybody who sees the floor can dribble, pass, or shoot. And they’re very conscious about when to do what in his motion offense so they’ll pass up good shots for great shots. With guys who are shooting threats, it forces defense to play Iowa straight-up which means there is often going to be somebody open.
More mentally, this team has taken to the idea that in order to compete for championships, everybody needs to play within their role.
I expect at least one skirmish and probably a couple technicals in a back-and-forth game. My guess is that it probably comes down to the last possession, like the last game in Champaign did, and think Iowa comes out on top by the slimmest of margins, 79-78.
We wish the Hawkeyes the best of luck...in every game AFTER Friday night. Thanks again to Harrison for helping out. Follow him at @HD_starr on Twitter, where you can also find Black Heart Gold Pants @BGHP.