Illinois is 0-2 in the league, and already has a home loss on its record after a dismal offensive performance against Ohio State last Saturday. With road games against Michigan State and Minnesota, and a home contest next Saturday against #3 Wisconsin looming, the Illini need every win they can muster during what is arguably the toughest part of their Big 10 schedule.
The Hawkeyes come in to tonight's game (7:05PM CST tipoff on ESPN Regional) with a 9-6 record (1-0 in the Big 10). This Hawkeye team is much like Illinois, struggling to find it's identity after losing two senior leaders in Greg Brunner and Jeff Horner. The Hawkeyes still have senior guard Adam Haluska, who averages 19.9 points/game, senior guard Mike Henderson (4.9ppg after being injured much of the preseason), and feature some new faces in 6'7" forward Tyler Smith (freshman averaging 15.2 ppg), 6'8" forward Cyrus Tate (Northeast Community College transfer sophomore, 4.9ppg), and 7'0" forward Seth Gorney (junior, 5.9ppg) in their starting lineup.
The Iowa offense runs through Haluska and Smith. Haluska is the Hawkeye's outside threat, averaging over 8 3-point attempts per game, and hitting at just under a 40% clip. Haluska has scored in double figures in 12 of Iowa's 15 games. Haluska isn't just an outside threat-he's not afraid to drive the lane, and leads Iowa in free throws attempted and made (65-72, 90.3%). He's also 3rd on the team in rebounding, leads the team in steals, and is third in assists and blocked shots. Smith has hit double digits in 13 of 15 games. Although he doesn't take many 3-pointers (only 26 on the year), he makes about 35% of his attempts. Smith is second on the team in rebounding, second in steals, and second in assists.
Iowa does not have a particularly deep bench, but the bench players that Steve Alford uses get a lot of minutes. Backup guard Tony Freeman (SO, 7.5ppg, 4.4apg) spells the point, and guard Justin Johnson (transfer JR, 6.5ppg) are both capable 3 point shooters, and 6'10" forward/center Kurt Looby (JR, 4.6ppg, 2.0bpg) has taken over for departed senior Eric Hansen as Iowa's designated "tall skinny guy that can block shots but can't do much else".
Iowa can shoot from outside. They lead the league in 3-point FG% at 39.2%. Unfortunately, their overall shooting % isn't much better (and is the worst in the Big 10) at 44.3%. The Hawkeyes also give as good as they get, with the worst 3-point FG% defense in the league-opponents hit 36.2% from behind the arc. The Hawkeye's overall defense isn't much better, surrendering 44.3% FG shooting by their opponents, and allowing an average of 63.4 points/game, good for 10th and 9th best in the conference. The Hawks are not a good rebounding team, with a rebounding margin of –1.7/game.
Illinois will start Chester Frazier (SO, 8.5ppg, 4.6rpg, 5.7apg) and Jamar Smith (SO, 12.5ppg) at the guards, Warren Carter (SR, 13.7ppg, 6.6rpg) and Brian Randle (JR, 7.5ppg, 4.1rpg) at the forwards, and Shaun Pruitt (JR, 10.9ppg, 7.1rpg) in the pivot. Key reserves are guards Rich McBride (SR, 8.1ppg), Trent Meacham (SO, 7.4ppg, 2.0apg), and Calvin Brock (SO, 7.6ppg, 4.9rpg, 1.9apg), and big men Marcus Arnold (SR, 2.1ppg) and Brian Carlwell (FR, 2.2ppg).
Illniois is currently on a three game losing streak, the first such streak under Bruce Weber. The Illini shot a woeful 24% from the field, and 13% from 3-point range, in their most recent loss to Ohio State, and the 62-44 defeat was the worst home loss suffered by Illinois in 30 years. Illinois is not a horrible shooting team, as their 45% season average indicates. Nor are they normally bad from behind the arc, connecting on over 37% of their attempts.
There are three keys for Illinois if they want to win this game and right the ship. First, Illinois has to shoot better from outside. Iowa's opponents have lit them up from the perimeter, and effective ball movement by the Illini will result in open looks for Smith, McBride, Carter, and Meacham. Illinois HAS to hit the open looks when they're there. Ohio State gave the Illini plenty of looks, and Illinois didn't take advantage of them. Additionally, expect Iowa to throw a zone defense out against Illinois, and dare the Illini to shoot them out of it. Again, effective ball movement and hitting the open looks will force Iowa out of the zone.
Second, Illinois must contain the dribble penetration by Haluska. He's big and fast, and he'll go right at the heart of the Illinois defense, and either kick it out for an open three, dump it to Tyler Smith for an easy layin, or draw a foul. But they also have to respect Haluska's ability to hit from deep. Expect Jamar Smith to draw first duty on Haluska, and if Smith can't keep him in check, Brian Randle may spend time chasing Iowa's sharpshooter through screens.
Finally, Illinois MUST exploit their advantage in the paint, and on the glass. Iowa has nobody that can contain Shaun Pruitt in the blocks one on one. If Illinois can get the ball to Pruitt, watch for Iowa to send multiple people at Pruitt. If Shaun can sense the double teams and pass out of them before they collapse on him, he'll have plenty of people wide open to get the ball to. If Iowa plays zone, Carter and Randle must flash to the high post and the short corners and exploit the holes in the zone by making the 12-15 foot jumpers that will be open. Illinois must also utilize their size advantage on the glass, limiting Iowa's second-chance opportunities (and there will be many, since Iowa does not shoot particularly well), and capitalizing on their offensive rebound opportunities to score on put-backs and layups on the offensive end.
This is not a particularly good Iowa team. If Illinois can neutralize either Haluska or Smith, the scoring options for Iowa become very slim. To do so, Illinois will have to limit dribble penetration and play smart interior help defense. If they do that, and shoot at a somewhat reasonable pace, Illinois should win by a semi-comfortable margin. Shining up the crystal ball, I see a first half where neither team can establish much, as Illinois struggles against the Iowa zone, and Iowa hangs close on the strength of about 11 from Haluska. Illinois gradually pulls away in the second half, as Smith and McBride hit just enough 3's to get Iowa out of the zone, and Pruitt and Carter take over from there. Illinois wins 68-59, in a game that's closer than the score indicates.