Before the season we looked at Iowa's schedule and grimaced at opening Big Ten play with back-to-back games against Purdue and Illinois. The Boilermakers and Illini figured to be two of the best teams in the Big Ten and two of the worst match-ups for Iowa, based on their size and prowess on the glass.
Bad news? Iowa did indeed lose both games against Purdue and Illinois.
Good news? They didn't get wiped out in either game and showed some real positives in the defeats.
But obviously moral victories and close losses only go so far and Iowa needs to turn these narrow defeats into actual victories sooner rather than later. Big Ten play resumes in January with visits from Maryland and Indiana sandwiched around a trip to Wisconsin; Iowa will need to find a way to dig out from this 0-2 start in Big Ten play when those games roll around.
Slow starts hurt Iowa in both the first and second halves tonight. Illinois jumped out to a 13-4 lead and built that out to 20-10 seven minutes into the game. Iowa went to the bench unit at that point and the reserves keyed a monster run for Iowa, outscoring Illinois 21-2 behind a swarming press that forced multiple Illinois turnovers and featured an offensive explosion from Tony Perkins (12 points!). Unfortunately, the effectiveness of the second unit waned and Illinois ended the half on a 17-5 surge of their own to take a 39-36 lead into halftime.
Iowa briefly took a lead to start the second half behind a pair of buckets from Keegan Murray, but Illinois regained the lead behind six consecutive points from Kofi Cockburn; they never relinquished that lead the rest of the game, with the lead getting as high as 15 just over midway through the half. Iowa chipped away but still trailed by 10 (69-59) with four minutes to go. Then Iowa mounted one final charge, behind a pair of free throws from Ahron Ulis and a fast 8-0 run from Keegan Murray in a minute. That cut the lead to 72-69, but three points was as close as Iowa could get it; they weren't able to get enough stops on defense to either tie the game or re-take the lead.
The most glaring stat from this game is, of course, the rebounding margin. Illinois finished the game with 52 (!!!) rebounds, while Iowa had just 23 rebounds in the game. That's a deficit of nearly THIRTY rebounds. You will almost never win games getting out-rebounded by thirty. Iowa got brutalized on the offensive glass, where Illinois had a 19-9 edge, which they used to post a 24-11 advantage in second chance points. But the 33-14 disparity in defensive rebounds was pretty brutal, too, because Iowa couldn't get second chance opportunities on offense, which they really needed since they didn't shoot the ball well at all (45% from the floor, 35% from 3-point range). Illinois is an excellent rebounding team (and a particularly elite team on the offensive glass) but rebounding has to be a point of emphasis for Iowa in practice and in their next few games.
As noted, shooting was a major problem for Iowa. They were just 45% from the floor and 35% from long range in the game and those 3-point numbers were goosed a bit by a pair of late three-pointers. Iowa was just 8/23 from 3-point range in this game and it's going to be hard for them to win many games when they shoot that poorly from distance. Also looming large? Missed free throws. Iowa was just 13/19 from the free throw line in the game, with Keegan Murray shooting an uncharacteristic 4/7 from the line. Those missed free throws really hurt in what ended up being a close game.
One good area of the game for Iowa? Turnovers. Iowa only gave the ball away four times (though Illinois did score an efficient 8 points off those four turnovers), while they forced 18 (!) Illinois turnovers and turned those takeaways into 26 points, mainly thanks to 17 transition points. Those Illinois turnovers (and subsequent Iowa scores) did help mitigate some of the damage from the rebounding mismatch; without Iowa's significant turnover advantage, this game wouldn't have been close at all.
After a notably quiet first half (2 points on 1/3 shooting), Keegan Murray exploded in the second half for 17 points on 6/12 shooting (1/3 from deep). He was especially good down the stretch and was a key part of Iowa having any hope at all of a comeback at the end of the game. Unfortunately, Kofi Cockburn also had a pretty massive second half: 14 points (on 5/11 shooting) and 12 rebounds. For the game, he finished with 17 points and a career-high 18 rebounds, which is every bit the dominant performance we feared from him.
Outside of Keegan, the only Iowa starter to produce much was Patrick McCaffery, who had 12 points on 5/11 shooting (2/3 from 3-point range), though Filip Rebraca did manage 8 rebounds (or over 25% of their total rebounds in the game), which was a mild positive. Jordan Bohannon struggled with just four points on 2/5 shooting and also struggled to keep up with Trent Frazier on defense, Joe Toussaint had two points on 1/7 shooting and struggled to get into the flow of the game.
For the second straight game, some of Iowa's best performances came from the second unit. Tony Perkins finished with 16 points on 6/8 shooting, while Ahron Ulis had 11 points on 3/6 shooting, plus a team-high 7 (!) assists. Both Perkins and Ulis were key parts of Iowa's surge in the first half and their energy and aggressiveness on defense was immense. Kris Murray also gave Iowa good minutes off the bench -- 8 points on 3/8 shooting, 5 rebounds, 2 assists. Iowa's bench mob has been one of the big positives from the last few games, though if they continue to out-perform the starters this significantly, Fran is going to need to seriously consider some lineup adjustments.
There were several issues to blame for this loss -- bad shooting, missed free throws, a sluggish start, a failure to defend 3-point shots -- but the biggest takeway from this game has to be rebounding. Iowa's probably not going to win the rebounding battle against Illinois in many games, but they can't afford to get obliterated on the glass the way they did tonight. A 30-rebound deficit is basically insurmountable.
NEXT: Iowa heads to Ames to take on #17 Iowa State (8-0) on Thursday, December 9 (8 PM CT, ESPN2).