It's been almost a year exactly from dark day when the 2020 season was canceled and fans were denied what would have been a toss-up game in the Iowa-Illinois 2020 trilogy. Fast forward to today and both Iowa and Illinois are top 5 teams and each has a prime candidate for the Naismith National Player of the Year Award.
It truly doesn’t get much better than this in college basketball. Both teams are looking to focus a spotlight on their national reputation and beating a Top 5 team during the B1G Tourney provides the biggest stage in college basketball to do so. The goal is to win this game, get one step closer to the B1G title and sharpen the team's edge for a serious run in the NCAA tournament.
There is no love between these two teams and only one gets to move forward in the Big Ten tournament. Both teams know what is at stake. Both teams will be ready to play. Nothing is left, save to play the game.
During their previous matchup this season, Illinois made a serious point in leaving Kofi on an island with Luka Garza. While Luka had 19 points, it also took him 18 shots to get there. Deciding not to double down on Garza meant only Joe Wieskamp looked comfortable creating his own shots within the offense. The rest of the team struggled.
Most teams don’t have that luxury of being able to leave Garza without a double team, but Cockburn has the athleticism and size to make the game much more difficult at both ends of the court for the potential player of the year. Another key component is Garza no longer has a suitable replacement at the 5 position like he did earlier in the season due to the unfortunate injury of Jack Nunge.
Nunge's absence could be a huge factor if Garza is to get into foul trouble. Nunge’s defense was vital in those minutes when Garza was on the bench and Nunge responded with a very good game against the Illini in Champaign.
This year, Garza has only averaged 31 minutes per game. Yet without Nunge, in their last two games versus Wisconsin, Garza has played an average of 37.5 minutes per game. As the game wears on, Garza's effectiveness against a well-rested Kofi could be a challenge.
Hopefully, we get to see this matchup in full and don’t have it decided due to the refs, but knowing B1G refs, that possibility is always in play. The game will be a better game if both centers are not hampered by undeserved foul calls.
Coming off a fantastic two-game stretch versus Ohio State and Rutgers, Ayo has shown no signs of weakness due to the mask. In fact, his game against Rutgers was one of his most efficient 20+ point performances of the year.
With Wieskamp looking a bit less comfortable on the court since his ankle injury, Iowa doesn’t have a great option to deal with Dosunmu. Ayo is a man on a mission and has something to prove in this game. He has the national stage to demonstrate to the nation that he is the best player in the country, even over Garza.
While Dosunmu and Garza won’t be matched up in the context of guarding one another, both must realize their results will be compared side-by-side on television screens across the country. As the underdog in the Naismith race, this will fuel Ayo’s performance on both ends of the court.
His ability to turn defensive boards and steals into quick points in transition remains one of his biggest strengths. Against an Iowa team with a shortened bench, this could prove to be a deciding factor in the contest. Particularly, as Iowa hasn’t been as effective pushing the ball as they were earlier in the season.
Both teams have Final Four potential, but the depth of the roster favors the Illini. Against Rutgers, Curbelo and Giorgi didn’t play great, but the team got production from Adam Miller, Da'Monte Williams, and Jacob Grandison. Iowa doesn't have the luxury of contributors not playing well.
Iowa has their own fantastic one-two punch in the Garza and Wieskamp duo. The Hawkeyes will still need more from Fredrick and Bohannon than they’ve been getting of recently. Fortunately for the Illini, these two players are mostly spot up shooters and Underwood has been fantastic at limiting similar style players with our athletic guard play.
The confidence this Illinois team is playing with is at an all-time high and shows no sign of slowing down now. They have to maintain their high level of defensive intensity, avoid foul trouble, and avoid long offensive droughts.
Iowa is very good, but Illinois is better. Today is the time to prove it.
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