Date: February 26th, 2011
Gametime: 7 PM ET/ 6 PM CT
TV: Big Ten Network
After a week off, the Iowa Hawkeyes (10-15, 3-12) hit the hardwood again as they start back to back trips to the two Big Ten arenas that have been their biggest homes of horrors over the past 25 years. Before they head to East Lansing, a place they have not won at since 1993, they head to Assembly Hall in Champaign, IL, a place they have not won at since 1999 to face the suddenly struggling Illinois Fighting Illini (17-11, 7-8) in a game that is crucial to the Illini's tournament hopes; hopes that could take a damaging hit if they suffer a setback against the rebuilding Hawkeyes.
After starting the season red hot, Illinois is in the midst of a recent slide. They have lost 3 of their last 4 and 4 of their last 6, which has brought them back to the middle of the Big Ten pack and has put their Tourney hopes in increasing doubt. The Illini are lead by senior point guard Demetri McCamey who is averaging 14.5 points and 6.2 rebounds a game; as McCamey goes, so go the Illini. The Illini also have a strong senior post duo of Mike Tisdale and Mike Davis. Tisdale, a 7'1 senior, is averaging 9.6 points and 6.4 boards per game, while Davis, a 6'9 senior, averages 11.9. points and 6.9 rebounds per game. Bruce Weber's club also has solid guard play in the form of guards Brandon Paul and DJ Richardson. Even though Illinois has undoubedly underachieved in the Big Ten, they still have a very talented team. According to Ken Pomeroy from Kenpom.com, Illinois is ranked 35th nationally in offensive efficiency and 23rd nationally in defensive efficiency. The Illini has struggled to close out tough games in the Big Ten, as they are 1-5 in conference games decided by 5 points or less.
Even though the Iowa Hawkeyes are at the bottom of the Big Ten with Indiana, they have become better and more competitive during the Big Ten season in Fran McCaffery's first year as Iowa head coach. The two players that have had the biggest impact this year have been two newcomers. Bryce Cartwright, a 6'1 junior who came to Iowa after a year at junior college and is having a terrific first season in Iowa City. He is averaging 10.9 points and 5.7 assists for the season and has 6.7 assists per game in conference play, which leads the Big Ten. Another key addition has been 6'8 freshman, Melsahn Basabe, who is arguably the second best freshmen in the conference behind phenom Jared Sullinger at Ohio State. Basabe is averaging 10.9 points and 7 boards per game and can be extremely tough to guard when he stays out of foul trouble. Even though these two newcomers have played an instrumental part in the Hawkeyes becoming more competitive, they are still lead in scoring by junior Matt Gatens. Gatens is averaging 12.5 points per game and is a solid 3 point shooter, making 50 on the year. According to Kenpom, they are 146th in the nation in offensive efficiency and 51st in the nation in defensive efficiency. Similarly to Illinois, the Hawkeyes have struggled in close games. They are 1-4 in Big Ten games decided by 5 points or less, including their last two games. They have suffered two 3 point defeats in the past 10 days, losing to Northwestern in Evanston and a home overtime loss to Michigan.
This game is crucial to Illinois's tournament hopes as the Illini finish the Big Ten campaign with a trip to West Lafayette against the red-hot Boilermakers and a Senior Day home game against Indiana. Anything less than 9-9 in the conference would leave them with a lot of work to do in the Big Ten Tournament to get into the field of 68. The Hawkeyes last week of Big Ten play has them heading up to East Lansing for a road game against a resurgent Michigan State team before a home finale against Purdue. In the first matchup of the season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Illinois won 87-, 77. They were on fire, shooting a red hot 67% from the floor including a scintillating 13-18 (73%) from 3. For Iowa to pull an upset, they will need to keep Basabe out of foul trouble, mix up defenses to keep the Illini off balance and make a majority of their shots while hoping the Illini have a cold night shooting. Even though Illinois has struggled this Big Ten season, they are still a strong team at home with only two home losses to the year to Ohio State and Purdue and all signs point to a comfortable Illinois win, which will get them one step closer to dancing.