By RossWB on December 6, 2021 at 4:02 pm
kofi smash
© Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

WHO: Illinois Fighting Illini (6-2, 1-0)
WHEN: 6:00 PM CT (Monday, December 6)
WHERE: Carver-Hawkeye Arena (Iowa City, IA)
TV: FS1 (Kevin Kugler, Stephen Bardo)
RADIO: Hawkeye Radio Network (TuneIn, or local listings) | XM Ch. 372
MOBILE: Fox Sports app 
TWITTER: @IowaHoops | @IowaAwesome | @IowaOnBTN
LINE: Iowa -2.5 (TOTAL: 151.5)
KENPOM: Iowa -2 (60% win probability)

NOTE: Don't forget to follow all the action during the game and chat with your fellow Iowa fans in the Go Iowa Awesome discord! (More info here.)

We expected the worse for Iowa's last game against Purdue on Friday and ended up being pleasantly surprised by the outcome, a closer-than-expected 7-point loss that featured plenty of fight in the second half. But teams cannot live on moral victories alone and Iowa will need to pick up real victories to keep pace in the Big Ten. Things don't get a whole lot easier with their second Big Ten game of the year with a match-up with Illinois, though it is in Iowa City. 

Illinois was widely projected as one of the top contenders in the Big Ten, though they haven't been quite up to that level so far. They're 6-2 overall so far, with their two losses coming a few weeks ago against Marquette (on the road) and Cincinnati (at a neutral site). Star big man Kofi Cockburn was out for the Marquette loss, but he was in the lineup for the Cincinnati game, which was a 20-point loss. They've won their past four games, including a 10-point win over Notre Dame in the Big Ten-ACC Challenge and a 35-point smashing of Rutgers in their Big Ten opener on Friday. 

The Illini have been an extremely balanced team so far, ranking near the Top 20 in both offensive efficiency (19th) and defensive efficiency (21st). The strength of their offense is their shooting (55.3% eFG (65th), 53.9% 2FG (69th), 35.0% 3FG (113th)), as well as their elite offensive rebounding (39.6% of their misses, 8th nationally). Their offense does have a clear weakness, though -- they turn the ball over on 22.3% of their possessions (308th) and they both give up a lot of steals (10.9% of possessions, 278th) and non-steal turnovers (11.4%, 294th). 

On defense, the Illini aren't letting teams shoot well (44.0% eFG (32nd), 42.2% 2FG (17th), 32.0% 3FG (123rd)) at all and they're good at preventing opponents from getting to their offensive glass (only 24.1% of their misses, 56th nationally). They don't force many turnovers (just 17.5% of opponent possessions, 260th), so they rely on getting opponents to miss and then scooping up the rebounds. 

In the last game, Iowa faced a daunting challenge from Purdue's army of big men and while Illinois doesn't have as many talented bigs as Purdue, they do have one very very good big man who could be a nightmare for Iowa to slow down. Kofi Cockburn (7'0", 285 lbs) is basically a wrecking ball in human form, averaging 24.0 ppg (on 68% shooting) and 10.6 rpg. Iowa's best shot at slowing him down is... hope? Prayer? Getting him in foul trouble would be a big help, honestly; hopefully Keegan Murray is back tonight to hopefully force Cockburn into committing some fouls. 

Aside from Cockburn, three other Illini players are averaging double figures in scoring: guards Alfonso Plummer (6'1", 180 lbs), hitting 15.1 ppg (46.3% FG, 42.1% 3FG), and Jacob Grandison (6'6", 210 lbs), scoring 11.3 ppg (58% FG, 50% 3FG), as well as forward Coleman Hawkins (6'10", 215 lbs), averaging 9.6 ppg (52% FG) and 5.9 rpg. Andre Curbelo has been one of Illinois' most productive players when healthy (9.3 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 5.5 apg), though he's also been very turnover-prone (4.0 per game). He's set to miss tonight's game due to injury, though. 

This series has produced some thrillers in recent years (three of the last four games have been decided by seven points or less) and that, coupled with both teams contending for Big Ten championships ans and rankings in the Top 10, has done a lot to rekindle the formerly dormant Iowa-Illinois rivalry. The atmosphere for those games has been excellent and there should be another good crowd in CHA tonight to witness the first meeting between these teams this season. 

Can Iowa use their strong finish at Purdue as a springboard to get their first Big Ten win of the season? We'll find out tonight. 

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