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So, do the men's basketball teams of Iowa and Illinois really hate each other?
'It's just we don't like each other, simple as that,' Illinois star guard Ayo Dosunmu said last March 8 after his team edged the Hawkeyes 78-76 in what turned out to be both team's season-finale.
'They want to kill us. We want to kill them. There's no sweetie or nothing like that.'
With 1:02 left in the first half of that game, a pair of double-technical fouls were called, on Iowa's Connor McCaffery and Illinois' Da'Monte Williams, and on Iowa's CJ Fredrick and the Illini's Trent Frazier.
It was like hockey fights broke out, but without the fisticuffs. McCaffery and Williams got nose-to-nose, literally, yapping at each other before being separated.
Friday at 8 p.m. in the Illini's State Farm Center, the teams meet again. This time, they do so with Iowa ranked No. 7 and Illinois No. 19 in Associated Press' Top 25. The Hawkeyes are No. 5 and the Illini are No. 7 in the NCAA's NET rankings, which are used by the NCAA tournament's selection committee.
Oh, Iowa is 6-2 in the Big Ten and in second place, and Illinois is 6-3. So there's no reason for the teams to fall in love with each other now.
But it turns out there is a little 'sweetie' between the two sides. It was heard amid the harsher rhetoric after last year's game at Illinois, and again this week.
'It's actually a pleasure to play against him,' Illinois center Kofi Cockburn said about Iowa counterpart Luka Garza on that March night. Garza played all 40 minutes in that game in Champaign and scored 28 points. However, Cockburn blocked Garza's last-second shot that would have tied the game.
'I learn from him and I try to match his energy,' Cockburn said.
Wednesday, Garza said he was glad Cockburn and Dosunmu returned to Illinois this season. About Cockburn, Garza said 'It's awesome to see a guy continue to work hard and develop his game.
'For me, as a competitor, I always want to play against the best, so I'm very excited for this matchup.'
The Illini were 14-18 and 12-21 in Brad Underwood's first two years as their coach, then climbed to 21-10 last season. Last year was the first since 2005 when the two teams were both ranked when they met, with neither higher than 18th.
'This is the first time we've both been kind of like at a peak, I guess you might say,' Connor McCaffery said. 'I think that's why you see all the tension and all the excitement heading up to the game. I think that's what makes it fun.'
Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery downplays the rivalry angle, saying 'They were two good teams just going at it last year.
'Both games (Iowa beat the Illini 72-65 in Iowa City last Feb. 2) came down to the last 30 seconds. And we have respect for them, just knowing who they have, and they've proven the last couple years that they're a team capable of winning at this level, and they're a team that I think no matter who they play is going to have that team's full attention.'
The one thing Friday's game will lack is the sellout crowd that filled the saucer-shaped arena with two hours of roaring in last year's game at Illinois.
That, Underwood said this week, 'was a hotly contested game. It was fun. To hear that crowd noise and the atmosphere … I still remember it vividly in State Farm Center.
'The two teams are going to show up (Friday) and they'll be minus 15,500 fans, but it's going to be a good game nonetheless.'
'You're going to see two very intense, good teams, high-level teams, a high-level basketball game,' Dosunmu said this week. 'It's going to be a fight.'
Well, not literally. Presumably.
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