Heat Checks & Hail Marys - Pivotal Victory Over Iowa

Mike Cagley, Co-Host IlliniGuys Sports Spectacular and Big Sports Radio

February 25, 2024

There’s a lot of hyperbole during the long college basketball season. How many times do we hear about a big game, a key game, or a huge game? Not as often, we hear about "must win" games. I’m not a big believer in "must win" games until the NCAA Tourney, but today is one that might be looked at as a pivotal win.

If the Illini had lost this game, the Penn State collapse would literally stretch out it’s metaphorical hands and snatch a second win away from the Illini. Illinois had to do everything possible to avoid this fate. And thanks to a team effort keyed by Coleman Hawkins, Nico Moretti and Justin Harmon, the Illini walked away with a 10-point victory.

This win doesn’t mean everything is perfect, but it does mean the team can enjoy a Sunday day off and then get back to work with a positive mindset as they prepare for Minnesota at the State Farm Center on Wednesday February 28 at 8 pm on BTN.

Coleman Hawkins courtesy Illinois Athletics

Heat Check #1 – Coleman Hawkins was Amazing

Coleman had a challenging game at Penn State with too many turnovers and a couple of key misses at the free throw line late in the game. Instead of continuing that rough streak, Coleman returned to form with a vengeance.

Coleman had a career high 30-points on 9-11 shooting from the field, going 3-5 from the 3-point line, and going 9 for 11 from the free throw line. It is exceedingly rare to see a player score 30 points on only 11 shot attempts. On Saturday afternoon, Coleman Hawkins was the very definition of a highly efficient basketball player.

The Coleman Hawkins who puts the ball on the floor at the 3-point line and ends up with point blank layups to go with his strong 3-point shooting is a Coleman Hawkins that few in college basketball want to defend.

Heat Check #2 – Nico Moretti Returns

Nico Moretti returned to action and demonstrated that he is 100% recovered from his foot injury. He played 17 minutes, scored 9 points, was second on the team in +/- rankings with an 11, and he had 2 rebounds, 1 assist and only 1 turnover.

Going 2-2 from the 3 and 3-4 from the free throw line does two things to Illini opponents. Moretti forces defenders to guard him as point guard away from the basket (which opens the middle of the defense) and he can hit free throws (which makes him valuable for late game situations). When matchups permit, he gives Underwood an alternative late game personnel option as opposed to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole by placing Illini players into a tough position to succeed.

Against the Iowa press, Moretti showed his value by jetting through an opening in the press. His vision is excellent. With Moretti's ball handling and his quickness at moving with the ball, he was able to break the press by himself when the opening was presented. That skill would’ve been nice to have on the floor against Penn State late in the game.

Heat Check #3 – Second Half Defensive Surge

The Illini won a game comfortably by ten points while at the same time having less than spectacular offensive games from Terrence Shannon Jr. and Marcus Domask. The two potential All B1G players combined to shoot 6-19 from the field and score 20 points. For most duos that is an excellent afternoon of work. For Shannon and Domask, that is a disappointing game. Most Illini fans (and maybe even Illini coaches) wouldn’t have expected an Illini win under those circumstances. Yet, the Illini won.

This win was made possible by the Illini playing defense at a much higher level in the second half where they held Iowa to 35.3% shooting from the field. This was a massive difference from the first half, where the Hawkeyes shot a blistering 62.1% from the field.

With the offensive firepower the Illini employ, any game they hold an opponent to 35 to 40 percent shooting, the Illini should have a fantastic chance to win the game. To make this even more of an accomplishment, the Illini executed this defensive plan against one of the best offenses in the B1G conference. The Illini need to replicate this defensive effort game-after-game to make it a habit, not an exception for the rest of the season (including the NCAA Tournament).

If the defense can play at the level of effectiveness we saw in the 2nd half against Iowa, the Illini could make it to the Elite Eight or even Final Four. It won’t be easy, but the goal is there. Now, the key is to become more consistent on the defensive end and do it game-after-game to turn the goal of a deep tournament run into reality.



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