It's Iowa folks. You know, that team to the northwest that always draws the ire of Illinois fans. The one that used false pretenses to destroy Lou Henson's program. The one whose fans fought with Illini football players in 1954, resulting in a 16 year moratorium on interstate play. The one where the fans congregate to yell insults and swear at Illini players as they leave the field of play, even after a big win.
Forget records. Forget statistics. Forget what has come before. Illini players must forget their embarrassing losses to Nebraska and Ohio State in their previous two games to compete, so Illini Nation must do the same. Just as Illini Indians used to hunt birds for dinner, so too must Illini athletes and fans prepare to pluck Hawkeye feathers.
Sure, Iowa has been on a role lately. They defeated ranked Indiana and Wisconsin teams on their home court in consecutive games, 78-66 and 67-66 respectively. And 6'-5" senior sharpshooter Matt Gatens burned the nets for 30 and 33 points in the two games, hitting 7 of 10 three pointers in each contest.
Sure, freshman Aaron White is only 6'-8" and must play the post at times, but he's third on the team in scoring and leads the team in rebounding. Illini coach Bruce Weber compares him to former Illini James Augustine and says he has stabilized Iowa.
Sure, Roy Devyn Marble, a 6'-6" sophomore, has played well at the point while Bryce Cartwright recovers from injury. Soph Melsahn Basabe (6'-7") was named Freshman of the Year in the Big 10, but he's only the fourth best scorer this season. And they have others who can light up the nets. So what?
If one looks for intangibles, one can find them. Teams that defeat two ranked teams in a row are overdue for a letdown. As an example, the 2007 Illini football team conquered ranked Wisconsin and Penn State and then had nothing left at Iowa. Turnabout is fair play.
Gatens, shooting 42% from the arc for the season, can't continue his hot streak forever. He made 10 threes in a row over their last two games, but no one does that routinely in pressurized situations. He is due for a poor shooting night. Also, Iowa's two big wins were at home. They will not play as well in the Assembly Hall.
On the Illini side, six losses in a row and 9 of their last 10 sounds daunting, but winning and losing streaks often end after six and 9 in a row. The Illini are due for a reversal of fortune. Perhaps that may seem like a stretch to many, but play along for the moment. Stranger things have happened.
The Illini defense has been nonexistent lately, but it matches up well against the Hawks, who play small ball. Brandon Paul says he is placing a renewed emphasis on being the UI's lockdown defender, and he's overdue for a big defensive game against Gatens or whomever he guards. If the Illini play solid defense, they can win even if they continue to miss most of their three point shots.
If you're looking for a sign the team is banding together to provide a renewed effort, there is one. Illini players congregated at Meyers Leonard's apartment to watch Iowa's win over Wisconsin Thursday night. They ate pizza and wings and bonded while discussing how to counter Iowa strengths. Win or lose, they remain a close group.
The Illini have completed a tough grind of games against top opponents. The Iowa tilt marks only their second home game in the month of February. They will benefit from home cooking; it's imperative Illini Nation prepares a feast for them Sunday.
Weber says the team needs someone with the gumption to put the team on his shoulders and make plays. He needs someone to counterattack when an opponent gets on a hot streak. He has hoped one of Paul, Leonard or D.J. Richardson would provide that impetus. Actually, he still hopes all three will have good games at the same time. Up to now, none has been able to provide a consistent spark when needed.
But the Illini have a potent "sixth man" who is more than capable of making life miserable for the visiting team. This entity has scared opponents into mistakes and inspired local heroes to play their absolute best. If the Assembly Hall is the "House of 'Paign," Illini Nation is the Grand Inquisitor.
Forget the late season collapse and resulting depression. Forget about the coaching uncertainties, whether for or against a change. Ignore all the team's imperfections and limits. This is Iowa, and it deserves no special accommodation.
So fans, bring your best shot Sunday. Stand up from beginning to end. Cheer louder than you ever thought possible. Lift the roof off the old flying saucer and send those Hawkeyes scurrying to their own nests, scared to remain in Illini land.
If the Illini can play relaxed and with focus, they can beat the Hawks. It won't take a miracle, just consistent play and undying support from the fans. And never forget: it's Iowa!