Iowa Men's Basketball

"Pushover" Illinois team visiting Iowa pushed back hard in its last game

Hawkeyes will ignore Illini's 5-12 record when they meet Sunday

Iowa’s Luka Garza (55) shoots while defended by Illinois forward Kipper Nichols (2) during the Hawkeyes’ 104-97 overtime win over the Illini last Jan. 11 at State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. They will meet again Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports)
Iowa’s Luka Garza (55) shoots while defended by Illinois forward Kipper Nichols (2) during the Hawkeyes’ 104-97 overtime win over the Illini last Jan. 11 at State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. They will meet again Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. (Mike Granse/USA TODAY Sports)

IOWA CITY — The sports books of Nevada casinos may be populated by dreamers and fools, but they aren’t the ones who work there and set the point-spreads.

Penn State, despite being 0-6 in the Big Ten, was a 2-point favorite at home over Iowa Wednesday night.

The Hawkeyes, now 4-3 in the conference, may not have overwhelmed many outsiders by getting an 89-82 win in State College. But it was a good win, the kind Iowa almost without exception would not have gotten on the road last season.

Penn State does have players, and it sure had a heartbeat on Wednesday. If you saw the game, you saw major-college talent that was hungry to the point of desperate, and that clearly was bitterly disappointed with the result.

So you may view Illinois’ 1-5 Big Ten mark and 5-12 overall record and think the Hawkeyes should waltz to their fifth-straight triumph when the two teams meet Sunday at noon in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Hey, maybe Iowa will win big.

But who saw Minnesota, a quite good team, getting thrashed 95-68 by the Fighting Illini Wednesday night in Champaign?

The question wasn’t why Illinois didn’t roll over after enduring so much defeat this season. No, the question is this: Why would it?

“They have a lot of freshmen, they’ve got some new guys,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Friday. “But if you watch them play, they battle, and they were in some really close games.

“You knew that in particular, you knew how good Ayo (Donunmu) was. That kid is special. You knew how good (Trent) Frazier was last year. Now, they had to get used to playing with each other. ... now they’ve got Giorgi (Bezhanishvili) and (Adonis) De La Rosa, the transfer. That’s two new guys, but they’re both good.

“Now De La Rosa is a fifth-year guy and Giorgi is a freshman, but it just takes a little while for those guys to blend together. ... Kipper Nichols (17.1 points per game) is a really good player. He’s always played well against us. (Aaron) Jordan has always played well against us. He’s a terrific shooter.

“So once those guys got it figured out and a couple of those other freshmen started playing well, you could see it coming. Yeah, their record was sub-. 500, but they were in every game, they battled every game, and you knew they were going to put it all together at some point. It’s one of those things you always hope it’s not against you.”

Fortunately for Iowa, it has put some things together lately, too. Four straight wins — two on the road — has people viewing the Hawkeyes as a serious team. The easiest way to lose that label is to fall to a low-end league team at home.

An effort like Iowa gave in its last two home games — a nine-point win over Nebraska and a 10-point decision over Ohio State, both ranked at the time — should suffice in this game. Easier said than done.

What’s next? Michigan State, current owner of a 19-game Big Ten winning streak, comes here Thursday. But no looking ahead, people!

l Comments: (319) 368-8840; mike.hlas@thegazette.com

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