Points in Transition: Iowa vs. Illinois preview

Hawkeyes and Illini meet in a battle of winless Big Ten foes

Iowa Hawkeyes forward Tyler Cook (5) drives up the court under pressure from Michigan Wolverines forward Isaiah Livers (4) in the second half at an Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball game with Michigan at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
Iowa Hawkeyes forward Tyler Cook (5) drives up the court under pressure from Michigan Wolverines forward Isaiah Livers (4) in the second half at an Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball game with Michigan at Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2018. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)

Iowa is a five-point underdog (as of Wednesday afternoon) for the second straight road game in conference play, this time going to an old rival’s home floor in Illinois. Neither have won a conference game yet, and both have looked less than impressive in their last few games.

For every conference game, we’ll look at key players, strengths and weaknesses for both teams and the key to winning for both sides. Here’s a breakdown of the matchup between Iowa and Illinois, which tips off at 7 p.m. Thursday on FS1:

Player to Watch

Iowa: Tyler Cook, forward — When Cook plays well, Iowa plays well. Iowa’s issues are more complicated, obviously, but this fact remains true. In two of the last three conference games, whenever he’s gone off the floor, Iowa’s offense disappeared. Against a team with an active frontcourt, his contributions are going to be vital.

Illinois: Leron Black, forward — Black is Illinois’ leading scorer at 14.3 points per game, but he does a lot of different things for the Illini. He’s an effective shooter (53.4 effective field goal percentage) and rebounder, and attacks the basket effectively in a way that puts opponents in foul trouble. He’s not a huge threat from outside, but the offense will flow through him.

Strengths

Iowa: As has been well-documented, Iowa struggles with consistently doing things well. But that doesn’t mean it doesn't do anything well. It’s easy to overlook the fact that the Hawkeyes shoot the ball very well — when they get good looks and don’t turn it over.

As a team, Iowa is shooting 48.1 percent overall (sixth in the Big Ten) and 38.5 percent from 3-point range (third in the Big Ten). The Hawkeyes rank 42nd in the nation in effective field goal percentage, according to KenPom.com, and sixth in the Big Ten in that category.

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With Jordan Bohannon (shooting 41.8 percent overall and 43.9 percent from 3-point range, both better than last year) and Isaiah Moss (44.4 percent overall and 38.8 percent from 3, also both better than last year) from the outside and Tyler Cook and Luka Garza being efficient around the rim inside, those marks make sense. The Hawkeyes just haven’t consistently been able to draw on that with enough quality possessions.

Illinois: Fran McCaffery pointed out Tuesday in his teleconference that he had “not seen them not be connected defensively.” Brad Underwood, in his first year in Champaign, has the Illini No. 47 on KenPom.com in defensive efficiency at 0.963 points per possession.

Illinois isn’t particularly tall at an average of 6-foot-5, but averages 208 pounds across the board. Its forwards have the heft to hold their ground against opposing frontcourts, making it a physical team on defense. McCaffery pointed out their activity on defense, as well, and that’s backed up by the numbers, too. The Illini rank No. 7 in the nation in defensive turnover percentage at 24.3 percent, and best in the Big Ten (conference stats only) at 23.6 percent.

Offensively, the best thing Illinois has going is the offensive glass, where the Illini rank No. 6 in the nation in offensive rebound percentage at 37.9 percent.

Their strength is in their frontcourt, similarly to the Hawkeyes, which is why many have compared the two — that and their winless records in conference play.

Weaknesses

Iowa: There are a few different ways we can go here, obviously, but let’s stick with something that had been a strength but was not one against Maryland: rebounding.

The Hawkeyes have done well taking advantage of the offensive glass, specifically, but against the Terrapins, it was really only Nicholas Baer who got to the boards. Iowa lost the rebounding battle 31-28, which isn’t a terrible margin, but Baer had 11 of those 28 by himself. The other frontcourt players — Tyler Cook (one), Luka Garza (one), Ahmad Wagner (two), Jack Nunge (one), Cordell Pemsl (two) and Ryan Kriener (zero) — combined for seven. The second-leading rebounder Sunday was Maishe Dailey, with four.

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While McCaffery probably liked that number from Dailey, the two starting forwards especially in Cook and Garza combining for two rebounds is nowhere near enough. To this point, that’s not a consistent kind of performance, especially from Cook, but given how Iowa has played defensively, getting and making the most of second chances is a high priority.

Illinois: Where the Illini excel offensively, they are pedestrian at best on offense. In a new system and in dealing with losing Malcolm Hill, Maverick Morgan and Tracy Abrams from the starting lineup, it makes sense that they’d be a little slower on the uptake.

Illinois plays up-tempo in Underwood’s system — the Illini are the 46th-fastest-paced team in the nation per KenPom — but his team is only slightly above average in efficiency at 1.041 points per possession (157th). The Illini also are below average shooting the ball at a 49.1 effective field goal percentage, and don’t take great care or share the ball well. Illinois is last in the Big Ten at assist-to-turnover ratio, with 243 team assists to 252 turnovers (0.96-to-1).

The way in which the Illini play on offense offers a decent chance for the Hawkeyes to gain back some of the ground they’ve lost on defense.

Iowa wins if …

the Hawkeyes’ frontcourt can control the flow of the game against a team that excels in that area, while taking care of the ball and finding quality shots on offense.

Illinois wins if …

the Illini can take advantage of a struggling Iowa defense and overachieve from what they’ve done all season on offense.

l Comments: (319) 368-8884; jeremiah.davis@thegazette.com

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