CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — There’s no starker contrast of a seasonal arc than the difference between the Iowa and Illinois basketball programs right now.
The Hawkeyes (15-13, 7-8 Big Ten) have beaten four top-25 Big Ten teams, including two back-to-back. The Hawkeyes are unpredictable, inconsistent and perhaps the league’s scariest team at the season’s most important juncture.
Illinois started 10-0 and led the Big Ten at 4-1 in mid-January. But the Fighting Illini have hit a free-fall where the crashes are louder and more painful. Illinois has lost nine of its last 10, including six straight. Nebraska hammered the Illini 80-57, fueled by a 36-4 mid-game run. Ohio State beat the Illini 83-67 Tuesday and shot 65 percent from the field.
Then there’s the fate of Illinois Coach Bruce Weber. He won 112 games in his first four seasons with a national title game appearance. But the Illini have missed the NCAA Tournament two of the last four years. This year’s slide — coupled with a new athletics director — have many calling for his ouster.
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Weber has “done a terrific job” and called the situation “unfortunate.”
“He’s had a number of years where he’s been phenomenally successful,” McCaffery said. “Just do what you do, get ‘em ready. If you lose, you go to the next one and try to figure out what went wrong, what can we fix, let’s win the next one. There’s no other way to approach it.
“But sometimes you go through bumps in the road. I think when you look at Bruce, he’s going to have a number of opportunities to keep coaching if he wants to if he’s not to coach there anymore. I think they’d be wise to let him coach this team and lay off a little bit.”
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Trends aside, it’s never easy for the Hawkeyes to compete in Champaign, where good and bad Iowa teams have lost with equal regularity. Illinois has won 10 straight and is 21-1 against the Hawkeyes at Assembly Hall since 1987. Historically, Illinois is 60-14 against Iowa at home.
But this also is a different Iowa team. With wins this week against ranked teams Indiana and Wisconsin and earlier road victories against Wisconsin and Minnesota, the Hawkeyes are confident they can compete with anybody. That includes facing down their historical rival at their historical quagmire.“To be able to see them kind of enjoy all this hard work, to see the students rush the floor, the fourth ranked team we’ve beaten this year, it just goes to show you what they’re capable of doing,” McCaffery said. “Who knows where we’re headed right now.”