Iowa Men's Basketball

Iowa basketball's mission at Illinois: Win, skip Thursday at Big Ten tournament

Iowa-Illinois winner advances straight to Friday's league quarterfinals

Things got physical during Iowa's 72-65 men's basketball win over Illinois on Feb. 2 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa's cen
Things got physical during Iowa’s 72-65 men’s basketball win over Illinois on Feb. 2 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Iowa’s center Luka Garza (55) is caught in a scramble for a rebound with Illinois players as teammate Connor McCaffery (30) is blocked out. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

It’s no reflection on Indianapolis, but Big Ten men’s basketball teams would rather arrive there as late as they can this week.

What’s on the line in Sunday night's Iowa-Illinois game in Champaign is cut and dried. The winner gets the No. 4 seed in this week’s Big Ten tournament in Indy, which means it skips ahead to Friday’s quarterfinals.

The loser, on the other hand, will start play Thursday and would have to win four games to capture the title rather than three.

Not-so-fun fact for the Hawkeyes: They haven’t been a top-4 seed and opened on Friday at their league’s tournament since 2007.

“I think any time you can have the opportunity to rest your guys and be fresh later in the tournament is something obviously we all want,” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said Friday. “Needless to say, it always is, but this year probably more than ever.”

The Big Ten this season, McCaffery said, is “particularly grueling in terms of quality of teams, the physicality of games. You can only imagine the tournament will be the same way.”

The Hawkeyes are coming off a 77-68 home loss to Purdue Tuesday. They’ll try to snap back from that in an atmosphere that can generously be called hostile.

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Iowa may have gotten a piece of luck Thursday when the Illini’s seven-point halftime lead vanished and they lost at Ohio State, 71-63. Had Illinois (20-10, 12-7 Big Ten) won that game, it would be playing Sunday for a share of the Big Ten regular-season championship.

State Farm Center already looks like a flying saucer, and Sunday's crowd noise might have been audible in deep space had this game contained championship implications.

Iowa won the first meeting between the two, 72-65 in Iowa City on Feb. 2. That was hard-fought. This could be something more.

The Illini have a core of players who have had fine seasons, led by a quartet of capable guards in Ayo Dosunmu (16.6 points per game) and Andres Feliz, and 3-point aces Trent Frazier and Alan Griffin.

Then there’s 7-foot, 290-pound freshman center Kofi Cockburn, who averages 13.4 points and 8.8 rebounds and plays like a veteran. Cockburn had just six points at Iowa. Hawkeye center Luka Garza had 25.

“(Cockburn) runs well for a guy who’s 290,” McCaffery said. “He knows how to get position and he scores inside. He makes his free throws, so you just can’t start hacking him. He makes his free throws under pressure.

“He’s a guy you have to deal with because whenever he posts up he’s a handful because he’s got some moves and the ability to get deep, and he runs.”

Iowa (20-10, 11-8) has lost two straight games just once over 30 games. It’s had few true clunkers, but Tuesday’s loss to Purdue qualified as such to many.

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“This is a pretty astute group,” McCaffery said. “They know they didn’t play well, they know what they have to do better.

“It wasn’t pleasant, so let’s deal with it and get better.”

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

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