Illini Basketball Preview - Illini at Iowa

Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer

December 6, 2021

Illinois visits one of their archrivals when the face the Iowa Hawkeyes. The Illini lead the series 88-76, but in Iowa City, the Hawkeyes have a formidable 56-22 advantage over the Illini. This is not the venue for the Illini to have issues on the defensive end of the court. This Hawkeye team, like others under Fran McCaffery, they are amazing scorers and defense seems to be optional much of the time. The Illini should be able to score, but how well they defend will most likely determine the outcome of the game.

The Illini carry a four-game winning streak into its B1G road opener tonight at 6 pm on FS1. While the Illini lead the B1G in conference wins over the last two years, they are looking for their first win at Iowa since February 18, 2017. The Illini have featured seven different starting lineups through its eight games, but amazingly have outrebounded 7 of its 8 opponents and rank 8th in the NCAA in rebound margin at +12.4 rebounds per game.

It doesn't get any easier for the Illini as their next game is at home against Arizona on Saturday at 4 pm, televised by Fox.

Three questions

How will Coleman Hawkins adapt to his new role as a lockdown defender?

Coleman Hawkins courtesy Illinois athletics

After a dominating performance at home versus Rutgers, the Illini will be challenged with their first conference game on the road. Iowa’s best player, Keegan Murray, missed their most recent game against Purdue, but will likely be playing against Illinois. Murray has expanded his game immensely since the end of last season, when he was mostly used as an “energy guy.” He was also their best defender on the wing.

This year, he’s become the go-to player, and is averaging 24.6 points per game and just short of 9 rebounds per contest. He will be a unique match-up for Coleman Hawkins who is beginning to show promise on the defensive side of the ball.

In his previous game, Hawkins did extremely well defending against Ron Harper, Jr., holding him to 1 for 9 shooting and only 5 points – 10 points under his average. Hawkins’ length, at 6’10” will give a lot of players problems around the rim, but it’s his ability to move laterally on the perimeter that really sets his defense apart. He’s shown strides this season, but he needs to show consistency in his efforts, stringing together a series of games with strong result. Murray will provide a test to Hawkins’ defensive strength because he can score at all three levels.

Can Illinois role players continue to step up?

Jacob Grandison courtesy of Joe Clark

So far into the season Illinois has gotten consistent play from role players, notably Jacob Grandison, Da'Monte Williams, Omar Payne, and Luke Goode. With their first road game in conference play, that will need to continue. Each player brings something different to the court – whether it be through adding a shot blocker off the bench like Payne, the leadership and doing all the little things like Williams, or the ability to space the floor like Grandison and Goode.

With Andre Curbelo continuing to be out with the lingering effects of his recent concussion, Hutcherson having limited minutes in recent games, and the ever-present possibility of foul trouble on the road, this group of players needs to be ready for whatever this game demands of them. If there is ever going to be a night that unexpected calls bring the bench into play, this game would be that night.

Who will dictate the pace of the game?

With Curbelo being out, Trent Frazier will likely be playing the bulk of the minutes at the point guard position. This will challenge Frazier as Iowa has a quick and pesty on-ball defender in Joe Toussaint. Toussaint’s objective will be to pressure him by speeding up the pace and preventing this from being a half-court game. This makes sense, since Iowa doesn’t really have an answer to Kofi Cockburn.

Illinois will need to do their best to slow the game down and force Iowa to play patiently. Under Fran McCaffery, they haven’t been the greatest at defending and often lack the discipline needed to get stops on the defensive end of the court. Instead, they gamble on quick steals to get out and running. Preventing that from happening in the first place will frustrate Iowa's team and take away one of their preferred defensive strategies.

Prediction: Illinois 79 – Iowa 71

This will be a crucial match-up for Illinois as their first conference game on the road. Overall, this game will be a contrast in styles and whoever can force their will upon the other will likely prevail.

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