The Illinois basketball team is 14-8 on the season, 6-3 in the Big 10. Despite some good wins on its resume including a lopsided victory over the Hawkeyes in Champaign, the Illini cannot afford a letdown in Iowa City. As Illini coach Bruce Weber explains, Iowa continues to improve.
"The first time we played Iowa, they were still trying to figure out who they were. I think they've now figured some things out. Their freshmen matured. They made the big comeback at Michigan State, then they beat Penn State at home, which was a nice win for them. At Indiana, they seemed to control the whole game. And then for 37 minutes they led Ohio State, who I think is the most talented starting five in the league.
"Then they had their letdown at Michigan Saturday. It looked like right from the start they didn't have the emotion. With playing freshmen and so many young guys, I think it caught up with them. Michigan smacked them early, and they could never catch up."
Iowa has a unique style. Instead of recruiting top athletes who like to run and jump, their offense is based on setting up three point specialists. It is a more indirect approach than many teams use, and it causes problems for opposing defenses.
"The first game, we played good defense early," Weber reminds. "That's gonna be a key Wednesday. They will make you grind it out. When they shoot the ball well is when they give people games especially from the three point line.
They run tons of ball screens, spread you out and pick you apart. You've got to react, get to shooters, contest shots, and scramble. I hope we can do that on Wednesday.
"I think the key to their progress is Aaron Fuller. His numbers have been very effective in the league. He was key in their win at Indiana. He's a handful on the offensive glass, averaging almost four offensive rebounds a game. He's a tough matchup.
"He's an undersized four man that is mobile and really crashes the glass. They spread you out, get you in scrambles, and then he seems to have a nose for the ball and gets putbacks at key times. He has really improved.
"And then Cully Payne has been able to play all those minutes, handle the ball and get into their stuff as a freshman point guard. He's starting to really figure it out."
Iowa's starters all average between 8.1 and 12.1 points per game, with Matt Gatens being the only one in double figures. Eric May and Jarryd Cole round out the starters, while several reserves also are capable three point shooters. They are young and inexperienced, but their style is difficult to defend. It will take focused effort by the Illini to pull out a victory.
Illini forward Tyler Griffey agrees.
"They played Michigan State close and Ohio State close. We're gonna have to play well. Coach (Todd) Lickliter does a great job with those guys. They have a unique, distinct system. You've got to be ready for it and know how to guard. You've got to practice it and get into the film room.
"Iowa is a good team, and they've been playing great of late. Going into Michigan State with a three game win streak would be huge, but we're not looking past Iowa. We've got to concentrate on beating them."
Center Mike Tisdale says a loss to Iowa would be a deal-breaker for GameDay, so he isn't taking the Hawkeyes lightly.
"They're definitely improved over the last time we faced them. They've been playing teams real tough, and Iowa's a tough place to play. We have to go there with the right mindset to get the victory.
"A lot of their guys have stepped up. They've improved rebounding, scoring, things like that. They're playing harder and stronger. It isn't gonna be an easy game to go in there and win."
Tisdale realizes Iowa's unique style requires acclimation.
"It's a little different. Not too many teams run that type of offense. And the defense can change. It's gonna be a dogfight in there."
Point guard Demetri McCamey wants a win so the team will be confident of success going into the GameDay environment Saturday against league-leading Michigan State. He insists the team will not be looking ahead.
"They run a lot of pick-and-roll stuff. They make it difficult on defense because they change things. We know they're gonna come out and give 110% and do some things on offense that's gonna be real difficult to defend.
"To beat a team like Michigan State on GameDay in front of our fans would be something special. But right now it's all about Iowa Wednesday."
Weber is still trying to find a key to get all Illini playing well at the same time. Mike Davis played extremely well as a sophomore but has been in a slump of late. Weber ponders the cause and how to cure it.
"I think maybe he made so much strides, that it is just human nature as a young man to think, 'I'm there, I've made it.' Maybe he forgot he had to put time in. To his credit, the last couple weeks he has come in 3-4 mornings a week putting up shots.
"He made 3 of 4 free throws against Penn State and was 3 for 3 Saturday. He had struggled at the line, so it's something he's tried to work on. I think he's getting it, and it's never too late. I just want him to play hard all the time, that's the main thing. More than anything, that's what frustrates our staff."
How has Davis responded to not starting?
"I thought pretty well at Penn State, maybe not as well against Indiana. But I thought he responded well down the stretch of the game and made some big plays for us. You never know what will be a turning point for a team or an individual. Maybe we're there. I don't know, we'll see. I hope."
Weber was pleased with the Indiana win despite the closeness of the contest. He still hopes a spark will be triggered to help the Illini get on a winning streak near the end of the season.
"It was a good win, and now we've got to take that and make some progress, see if we can get everybody together playing well at the same time. Make a little push into the last half of the Big 10.
"We can start that by winning on Wednesday. It would be a big step for us. We could at least be in second place and give Michigan State a great game and a great show for GameDay."