If there's one thing that Iowa has done well in wins this year, it's taking advantage of an enormous free throw disparity. When Iowa beat Northwestern last week, it went 17/23 from the charity stripe, making ten more free throws than the Wildcats attempted. The Hawkeyes shot 26 more free throws than Illinois when the two teams met in January, scoring 22 more points from the line than the Illini. They doubled up Northern Illinois in both attempts and makes, made 25/36 on Colorado while the Buffaloes shot just 9/17, made twice as many as Southern Utah, made nine more free throws than UAB attempted, went 27/36 from the line on Grambling St. while the Tigers went just 6/6, doubled up Chicago State, and damn near tripled up Alabama State. In fact, Iowa has not won a game this year without at least a three-point advantage at the free throw line over its opponent.
And lo, the Hawkeyes went a staggering 34/41 at the free throw line Wednesday. And lo, Illinois was 9/12. And lo, Iowa won by nine in a 96-87 defense-optional race to a hundred. The win marks Iowa's first victory in the Big Ten Tournament in five years and avenges an 0-for-2 record against the program's especially lame eastern border rival last season.
Iowa's offense has solidified around Tyler Cook, Jordan Bohannon, and Luka Garza; the Hawkeyes' current big three combined for 64 points Wednesday afternoon, and while Cook and Bohannon were also responsible for 11 of Iowa's 18 turnovers, they are the Hawkeyes' only consistent weapons. The Orchid, who followed up his 34-point performance against Minnesota with a solid 12 points versus Northwestern, managed just six points on 1/7 shooting after getting into early foul trouble. Iowa's bench was its usual self, with Nicholas Baer putting in seven and Brady Ellingson registering an uber-impressive 8 trillion stat line:
Given Iowa's ability to win with a free throw advantage, Illinois was basically a perfect opponent; the Illini are 348th out of 351 nationally in the rate of free throws allowed. Michigan hasn't been nearly as charitable this year, and Iowa's route to weekend basketball has to go through what would be its best win of the season by miles. But that's for tomorrow. For tonight, a five-year burden has been lifted from the program and a team full of underclassmen has somewhat-surprisingly made it to March with some fight left.