IOWA (21-10, 10-10) VS. ILLINOIS (12-20, 7-13)
"It's been a long time since we played them. They blitzed us the first time. Made their first ten threes."
-- Illinois coach Brad Underwood, last night, on Iowa
Brad Underwood's assessment last night of Iowa's three-point shooting on January 20 was a bit off; the Hawkeyes only made two three-point baskets before Luka Garza missed an open jumper. Nevertheless, Iowa's 95-point outburst against the Illini was the high-water mark for this season, a 1.37 point-per-possession shellacking so good that Iowa jumped nine spots in Kenpom overnight. The Hawkeyes shot 71 percent from three that night, with Joe Wieskamp a perfect 6/6 from behind the arc.
Iowa never approached that level of offensive production again this year. Four nights after that Illinois win, Iowa would lose by 15 at home against Michigan State, then lose (despite a respectable 1.19 ppp) at Minnesota the following weekend. The Michigan win was more about defense than offense, and the Hawkeyes never approached 1.25 points per possession again. Over the last two weeks, they only broke 1.00 points per possession at Nebraska.
And maybe that's it for this season. Perhaps Iowa simply peaked too early. The math of how Iowa was winning in January was always a bit of a high-wire act: The Hawkeyes needed otherworldly shooting performances, tons of free throws and low turnover rates to counteract a defense that has routinely allowed opponents over the 1.0 point per possession threshold all year. As the Big Ten season dragged into February -- and as teams got a second look at McCaffery's team -- the shooting percentages dropped, the whistles went silent, and the turnovers mounted, all while that defense remained pretty much the same. Throw in a healthy dose of McCaffery's annual collapse, and you get yet another season of promise ending in a losing streak. Only late-game heroics from Jordan Bohannon and an actual miracle from Wieskamp at Rutgers have prevented it from being worse.
Then again, if there is a team that could help Iowa get right, it's Illinois. After all, the Illini aren't exactly the world's greatest defenders. As we mentioned heading into that January game, Underwood is from the Bob Huggins School of Press the Bastards Until they Turn it Over or Get Free, Then Hack Them, which is a terrible name for a school. That means turnovers, yes; Iowa had fifteen of them in the first meeting, the only real bogey on the scorecard that day. It also means free throws: The Stereotypes still give up more free throws than any Power Six conference team; the only teams that are even close to Illinois are Arkansas, which is basically doing the same thing from the Nolan Richardson School of Press the Bastards Until they Turn it Over or Get Free, Then Hack Them, and West Virginia, which is coached by Bob Huggins.
Maybe most importantly, press-everything usually means open shots, as the defense scrambles to protect the rim when the perimeter protection is broken. Opponents shoot on Illinois at a higher rate than they even do against Iowa. Only the dregs of the Pac-12 and a couple of Big East teams are worse at defending shots than Illinois. And the one consistent part of Iowa's February swoon has been mediocre shooting: The Hawkeyes are just 45.6% from two and 33.0% from three over the last eight games, which works out to a 47.1% effective field goal rate, nearly six percent below their season average. Turnover rate has barely budged over the same period.
There are certain constants to 2018-19 Iowa. The defensive output is what it is now. Same goes for turnovers, free throw shooting, and rebounding (Nebraska performance on the boards notwithstanding). Iowa is going to hold most opponents on Illinois's level to about 1.05 points per possession, which isn't great but is certainly beatable. The variable is shooting. If Iowa can shoot at its pre-February swoon level Thursday night against Illinois, they win. If not, they lose, and another constant will hold true: A tournament selection Sunday spent in limbo after a late-season collapse.