Illinois kicked off the the Big Ten Tournament by throttling a depleted Minnesota team 85-52 on Wednesday afternoon. Thursday's matchup with the fifth-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes won't be so easy. The Illini lost the only meeting the two had this year 77-65, which was played in Champaign. KenPom gives the Hawkeyes an 86% chance of advancing to the quarterfinals.
Here are some of the biggest keys to the game:
1. Jarrod Uthoff
Big surprise, Iowa needs their best player to play well. But a big reason for the Hawkeyes’ downfall down the stretch has been the play of their star. At one point Uthoff was a legitimate NPOY candidate. If you just look at the raw numbers, it wouldn’t appear that Uthoff’s play was an issue during the stretch where they lost six of ten from the end of January to the first day of March. He averaged 17.6 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks during that time. But he only shot above 42% from the field once in those ten games. By comparison, he had been above that mark in nine of the 11 games before that. A big part of that is how poor he’s been shooting from beyond the three-point line. He was 13-54 (24.1%) over that ten game stretch. He had been shooting 48.3% in the previous 19 games.
The good news? He had 29 points on 58% shooting from the field and 40% from three along with 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, and 4 steals in their regular season finale at Michigan. If that's a sign that he's returning to form, the Hawkeyes go from potentially losing to the Illini in their opening game to potential BTT champions.
2. The Big Three for Illinois
That would of course be Malcolm Hill, Kendrick Nunn, and Jalen Coleman-Lands. The three combined for 42 of the team's 85 points on Wednesday, which would've been a bigger number had John Groce played them their usual minutes. Since Minnesota didn't provide much of a challenge, Groce was afforded the opportunity to rest the trio, which means they should be ready to go against Iowa. It's pretty simple: if at least two of those guys don't have big days, the Illini's season will be over on Thursday. Look no further than their last game of the regular season at Penn State. Hill went for 39 points and the other two combined for 18 points on 23 shots. The Illini lost in double overtime.
Neither team is particularly good at cleaning up the boards, but it was a big difference in their only meeting this year. Iowa had 43 total (12 on offense) and Illinois had just 31 (7 on offense). Hill leads this category for the Illini as well. He'll need more help this time around if they're going to slow down Uthoff and Adam Woodbury on the glass. The duo had 9 of the offensive and 26 of the total rebounds in the first game.
It's a dangerous game for the Hawkeyes. Illinois has nothing to lose and Wednesday's game with the Gophers essentially served as a confidence booster. Iowa needs to build on their win at Michigan and get rolling again before the NCAA Tournament. A loss wouldn't knock them out of the NCAA bracket, but it would certainly hurt their seed and that can be the difference between an opening round loss and advancing to the second weekend.