IOWA (15-6, 6-4) VS. ILLINOIS (16-5, 8-2)
DATE: February 2, 2020
TIME: Noon CT
LOCATION: Xfinity Center, College Park, Maryland
TV: Fox Sports 1
RADIO: Learfield Sports
STREAMING: Fox Sports
LINE: Iowa -5
KENPOM: Iowa -5 (Iowa 68% win probability)
Wanna know if the Big Ten didn't see this basketball season coming? Putting one of the biggest games of the conference season on at noon on Super Bowl Sunday is a pretty good sign. In any case, it's Iowa against Big Ten leaders Illinois, the only national college basketball game of consequence on this Groundhog Day. Tipoff at CHA is set for noon, giving you plenty of time to make your party afterwards.
Illinois comes in on a seven-game winning streak, all in Big Ten play. And if you think these are smoke-and-mirrors results, that streak includes wins at Wisconsin, Purdue and Michigan. They've actually beaten Purdue twice during this run, by a total of 43 points, so it's clear that the Boilermakers didn't find an answer to what Illinois was asking.
All of this has Illinois in contention for its first conference title since they went 37-2 in 2004-05. Hell, Illinois hasn't even posted a winning record in the Big Ten since 2009-10, so all of this is a brave new world. But if it's a world where Iowa-Illinois is a relevant basketball game outside the Quad Cities, we're here for it.
If you haven't watched Illinois, you'd be justified in assuming that the Illini are simply playing the style of basketball their coach, and Andy Griffith Show villain, Brad Underwood is known for. Underwood is in his seventh season as a Division I head coach, and his third at Illinois. In the previous six seasons, his teams were known for a few things largely stemming from his time as an assistant to Bob Huggins and Frank Martin: Pressuring the ballhandlers on defense and crashing the glass on offense. The pressure defense led to huge turnover rates: Underwood's teams ranked in the national top 25 in turnover rate in five of his first six seasons (his one team at Oklahoma State ranked 55th). However, it also left his defenders out of position and scrambling when the pressure was broken, which led to fouls by the bucketload, huge numbers of offensive rebounds conceded, and some of the worst two-point field goal rates allowed (uncontested layups go in at a fairly high rate). Yes, Illinois would get layups of its own when it generated transition baskets, but the juice was hardly worth the squeeze.
What's remarkable about Illinois this year, then, is not that it has found success, but that it's found it by being the polar opposite of a Brad Underwood team. Remember those top 25 turnover rates? The Illini are 303rd nationally in turnovers generated this season, 348th in steals. There is exactly one Power Six team -- California -- which has generated fewer turnovers. The result: Illinois' opponents are shooting seven percent worse from the field, nine percent worse on two-point attempts, and pulling in six percent fewer offensive rebounds. They are also getting to the free throw line at half the rate they were last season, which is enough to flip the script on its own. Underwood's style of chaosball has been falling out of style for years. Kudos to Underwood for understanding that and adapting.
As for the offensive end, some things never change. Illinois still crashes the glass with the best of them, aided by seven-foot, 290-pound (!!!) freshman Kofi Cockburn (14.4 ppg, 9.4 rpg). The four-star Oak Hill Academy product is arguably the biggest recruiting win of Underwood's early tenure, and has changed the team immediately. Cockburn is in the national top 20 in offensive rebounding rate and top 35 in fouls drawn. He's also shooting 54 percent on two-point attempts and a respectable 67 percent at the line. He is, as my father would say, a problem. And as if Cockburn wasn't enough, Illinois still has Giorgi Bezhanishvili (6'9", 235) to pair with him. The Human Spelling Bee isn't as productive as he was last year (8.3 ppg/5.0 rpg, down from 12.5/5.2 last season), but he doesn't need to be. He just needs to be problematic enough to force opponents into keeping a true power forward on the court or risk being obliterated in the post. Senior Kipper Nichols (6'6", 220) subs in, allowing Bezhanishvili to move to center when Cockburn needs a breather.
On the perimeter, it's Ayo Dosunmu all day. The sophomore guard (6'5", 185) plays all three perimeter positions for the Illini and soaks up 32 minutes a game. He also leads the team in scoring (16.0 ppg), assists (3.4 apg), steals (0.8 spg), free throw rate (83%), and shot attempts. He's good, certainly good enough to prevent opponents from packing the lane to stop the Illini frontcourt.
Illinois rotates four guards around Dosunmu: Senior Andres Feliz (6'2", 195, 10.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.0 apg), junior Trent Frazier (6'2", 175, 9.9 ppg, 2.0 apg), junior Da'Monte Williams (6'3", 210, 2.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and sophomore Alan Griffin (6'5", 195, 8.4 ppg, 4.2 apg). Griffin, who returns from a two-game suspension for stepping on a Purdue guy, is their best three-point shooter; Frazier is also capable from three. However, Illinois shoots less from three than any other Big Ten team (only Kentucky, Cal and Georgetown shoot fewer threes among major conference teams). This is an interior-oriented team, built to get the ball to the rim and beat you to the rebound if necessary.
On paper, Illinois looks a lot like Rutgers: They take a ton of two-point shots, they make a lot of them, and they have the size to clean up the misses. Iowa handled Rutgers at home by matching their physicality, running the offense through Garza to cause some interior foul trouble, and pushing the tempo. Expect much of the same today, but make no mistake about it: This is a really good Illinois team, and if Iowa struggles from the field or loses Garza to foul trouble as it did mid-week, the Illini are fully capable of making them pay for it.