The Lions' Mouths May Be Empty, But The (Classy) History Will Make You 'ILL'
Back in Renaissance-era Venice, the city's governing body installed boxes, often shaped in the face of a lion, throughout the community. These stone-carved bocche di leone (lions' mouths) allowed citizens to insert hand-written complaints about certain government officials or the city itself, each of which would then be reviewed by Venice's Council of Ten.
If Iowa City were to install these boxes, in most winters they'd likely be filled with gripes surrounding topics such as Fran's late-game substitutions, shoddy defensive play, and "two-foul jail." This year, however, you'd be hard pressed to find many qualms around Eastern Iowa because life is pretty good for the Hawkeyes right now.
An incredibly disappointing effort against Indiana aside, at 12-3 (6-2 B1G), #7 Iowa is still in good shape. The Hawkeyes are currently ranked 4th according to KenPom—1st in adjusted offensive efficiency (124.6 points per 100 possessions)—and sit alone in second place, just a game behind #4 Michigan for the Big Ten lead. By most bracketology experts, including ESPN's Joe Lunardi, Iowa is currently on-track for a top-two seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Yet I'm beginning to feel uneasy. It's a sinking feeling of sorts, the likes of which usually don't occur until February at the earliest. It's that perpetual snowball where one conference loss quickly turns into two, then four, then suddenly the Hawkeyes have suffered six losses out of eight games. The next thing you know Iowa is four games back of the conference lead and a seventh seed in the Big Dance.
***Throws glass of cold water into face.***
OK. Admittedly, this may be a tad dramatic. I may be putting too much stock into the failures of past Iowa teams without taking into consideration that this squad is more talented than any other in the past 30 years. And if the Hawkeyes are who we think they are they should beat Illinois, all will be well, and they can carry on their march towards winning that elusive Big Ten regular season championship.
Still, history says there may be reason for concern.
After all, a ranked Iowa team has played a ranked Illinois squad in Champaign five times over the last 31+ years. All five times the Hawkeyes came up short—losing by double-figures in three of the contests and finishing within a single possession only once.
Sigh. . .roll the tape, then burn the tape.
3/8/89 - #4 Illinois 118, #15 Iowa 94
After upsetting the #2 Illini at home a month earlier, the Hawkeyes would be run over by the famed Flyin' Illini on senior night in Champaign. An early ten-point Iowa lead evaporated into a 51-35 halftime deficit, eventually resulting in a a 30-point Illinois lead before a late Hawkeye run made the score a bit more palatable.
Six different Illini scored in double figures, including 29 from Nick Anderson, 24 from Lowell Hamilton, and 21 from Kenny Battle. The story of the night, however, was Kendall Gill's return to action after missing over a month with a foot injury. The Illinois point guard poured in 15 points off the bench, 10 in the first half, in helping erase the early Iowa advantage and spur on the emphatic rout.
Roy Marble scored 37 points for Iowa in leading all scorers on the night, but it wasn't enough and the Hawkeyes were no match for arguably Illinois' best team in program history. The loss was Iowa's third-straight and its season would be over just 11 days later after a double-overtime loss to NC State in the NCAA Tournament's second round. The Illini would go on to reach the 1989 Final Four, losing to eventual National Champion Michigan in the National Semifinals.
1/15/02 - #11 Illinois 77, #17 Iowa 66
Two weeks removed from being ranked 9th in the country, Iowa wandered into Assembly Hall looking to keep a once-hopeful season from falling apart. Instead, the Hawkeyes were witness to something called The Frank Williams Show.
The Illinois guard sliced and diced Iowa with 16 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, and four steals which, along with Brian Cook's game-high 21 points, forced Iowa to play from behind for pretty much the entire night.
Hawkeye guard Luke Recker, the conference's leading scorer entering the game, didn't have a point over the game's opening 12+ minutes and finished with just 16 points on 5 of 13 shooting. Reggie Evans and Pierre Pierce (yep, that guy) combined to add 25 points, eight rebounds, and five assists, but Iowa had only seven assists and missed 13 free throws in the double-digit loss.
The game ended up serving as a pivot-point for both teams the rest of the way. Illinois won nine of its final 12 games in capturing a share of the Big Ten regular season title, eventually reaching the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen. The Hawkeyes, meanwhile, fell out of the rankings a week later and never returned, dropping eight of their final 11 games before ending the season with a first-round home loss to LSU in the NIT.
1/20/05 - #1 Illinois 73, #23 Iowa 68 (OT)
A look at the box score and it's slightly amazing Iowa fell short of toppling a top-ranked, 18-0 Illinois squad in Champaign. The Hawkeyes limited star guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown to only 16 combined points, forced 18 turnovers, and held Illinois to just 32% shooting from the field—including 6-for-28 from beyond the arc. Iowa also held the Illini to only one basket in the extra session.
But it wasn't enough.
Down nine at the break, the Hawkeyes rallied in the second half behind a double-double from Greg Brunner (16 points and 11 rebounds) as well as a combined 34 points from Pierce and Adam Haluska. A 7-1 Iowa run over the final 1:06, capped off by Brunner's lay-up with 3.8 seconds remaining, forced overtime.
Luther Head led all scorers with 25 points for the Illini, the last two coming on a basket in the final minute of the extra period putting Illinois ahead to stay. Pierce's game-tying three-point attempt with 5 seconds left failed and the Hawkeyes were unable to pull off the would-be stunner.
The contest was Illinois' closest call with defeat through its first 28 games, until a loss at Ohio State in the season finale. The Illini wound up losing only twice, the second time in the National Championship game to North Carolina later that spring. The Hawkeyes would rattle off a five-game winning streak to end the season, ultimately reaching the NCAA Tournament as a 10-seed and losing to #7 Cincinnati in the first round.
2/25/06 - #8 Illinois 71, #20 Iowa 59
Iowa was tied with Ohio State for first place in the Big Ten standings with only three games to play when it entered Assembly Hall to take on the third place Illini on senior day. Brunner went off for 27 points and seven rebounds, outpacing Illinois' leading scorer (Ronald McBride) by 12 points, but it still wasn't enough for the Hawkeyes who trailed by as much as 16 points in the defeat.
On this date in 2006, the two winningest players in Illinois basketball history played their final home game, a 71-59 win over Iowa.— Illinois Basketball (@IlliniMBB) February 25, 2019
James Augustine#Illini x #EveryDayGuys pic.twitter.com/URgKQF7znQ
Jeff Horner added 11 points, eight rebounds, and four assists, but no other Iowa player scored more than six points while three Illinois starters hit double-figures (McBride, Brian Randle, and James Augustine). Adam Haluska was held to three points, 10 below his season average, on just one of six shooting from the field (including one of five from downtown).
Following the loss Iowa wouldn't lose again for almost a month, ripping off five straight wins, including three in three days to win the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis. But as a #3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, the Hawkeyes were. . .uh never mind.
3/8/20 - #23 Illinois 78, #18 Iowa 76
You don't have to look too far back to find the last time these two schools tangled as ranked teams in Champaign. A much-hyped contest lived up to expectations with both teams trading early blows until Illinois took a 66-50 lead with just under 11 minutes to play.
Iowa rallied with a 24-10 run down the stretch to pull within two, and had possession with 01.6 left. But Kofi Cockburn blocked Luka Garza's desperation attempt at the buzzer and the Illini held on for the two-point senior day win.
Garza capped off his Big Ten Player of the Year campaign with 28 points and eight rebounds, while Joe Toussaint and Connor McCaffery combined for 24 points, 10 assists and six rebounds. But four Illinois starters scored in double-digits, led by Ayo Dosunmu's 17 points, eight assists, and seven rebounds and the Hawkeyes couldn't complete the comeback in Iowa's last game in a pre-COVID world.
Sellout crowds? This game feels like a lifetime ago.
It's still January so I'm not going to pull out the "must-win" card, but the combination of a suddenly jumbled schedule (thanks, COVID), a bad home loss to the Hoosiers and watching Michigan wax pretty much everyone it plays makes Friday's contest feel like a really, really important game on several levels. One, Iowa needs to show that the loss to Indiana was a fluke and two, it needs to stay within striking distance of the first-place Wolverines. Because, like I said, they're blowing nearly everyone out.
History isn't telling us what we want to hear, but this Iowa team isn't like any of the others. They're well equipped to come away with a win Friday night.
And let's hope they do, because another loss and the lions' mouths might start getting hungry.
It's Been A While
I'm sick of discussing Illini victories, so let's end this thing on a high-note. The last time a ranked Iowa team beat a ranked Illinois squad in Champaign was the legendary 1986-87 Hawkeyes' 91-88 overtime triumph.
Down 22 points in the second half, #2 Iowa pulled off a rally for the ages, gradually chipping away at the Illini lead until, eventually, Jeff Moe's jumper with :94 left rattled home to send the game to overtime tied at 81.
There, the Hawkeyes took the lead for good on B.J. Armstrong's basket with :22 to play and one defensive stop later Iowa had completed its incredible comeback.
Five Hawkeyes scored in double-figures, led by Brad Lohaus' double-double on 23 points and 12 rebounds. Armstrong, Marble and Ed Horton and Gerry Wright combined to add 47 for Iowa who incredibly made only two of six three-pointers and still scored 91 points.
Illinois' Tony Wysinger recorded a game-high 34 points and 10 assists, but the Hawkeyes found a way to escape Champaign with its perfect 16-0 record intact on the way to the last Elite Eight appearance in program history.
Iowa can't end its regional final appearance skid until March, but it can take a step closer towards that mission by ending another 34-year dry-spell Friday night.