The Battle Royale that is the Big Ten conference continues Sunday afternoon with a showdown between the no. 19 Illinois Fighting Illini and the no. 18 Iowa Hawkeyes. At home, the Hawkeyes are 4.5-point favorites with an over/under of 146 points.
The Hawkeyes saw their five-game winning streak come to an end Thursday night when they lost to Maryland 82-72. Despite the loss, Iowa is still in good shape with a 15-6 overall record and 6-4 mark in Big Ten play. At this point, any team that finishes .500 or better inside the Big Ten is likely to make the NCAA Tournament. However, the Hawkeyes don’t want to make losing a habit after coming up short against Maryland.
Meanwhile, Illinois survived a tough test against Minnesota on Thursday. The win makes the Illini 8-2 in conference play, putting them at the top of the conference standings. Illinois has now rattled off seven straight wins to bring them to 16-5 overall. Of course, Sunday’s the game is the first of five straight against ranked teams, so it’s crucial for the Illini to keep racking up the wins with a brutal February schedule ahead of them.
The Man in the Middle
Illinois freshman center Kofi Cockburn is quickly becoming the focal point of the team. The 7-footer from Jamaica has three double-doubles in his last five games, including one on Thursday against Minnesota. He’s not far removed from a 22-point and 15-rebound performance against Purdue in which he took over the game. Like most young big men, he will occasionally get into follow trouble. But he has the body of a pro and is becoming a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the court.
The rest of the Illinois team isn’t half bad either. Ayo Dosunmu is one of the most overlooked guards in the Big Ten despite averaging 16 points per game. When Trent Frazier gets hot from the outside, the Illini have the appearance of a good shooting team, making them tough to beat. Illinois will also welcome back Alan Griffin for Sunday’s game, giving them another potential X-factor who can knock down shots from the perimeter.
Fire with Fire
Of course, Iowa will counter Cockburn with center Luka Garza, a 6’1’’ junior who is arguably the best big man in the Big Ten this season. Garza is averaging 23 points and over 10 rebounds per game this season, not to mention 1.8 blocks every time out. He’s scored at least 20 points in 12 of his last 14 games, so he rarely has an off night. More importantly, he has the size and experience to hold up against Cockburn in the paint.
The versatile Garza is also a threat out on the perimeter. He shoots 37.3% from beyond the arc, potentially drawing Cockburn away from the basket. The Hawkeyes also have a few more capable outside shooters, including Joe Wieskamp and CJ Frederick, who average 15 and 11 points per game, respectively. Iowa shares the ball as well as any team in the Big Ten and shoots 35% from beyond three-point range, making the Hawkeyes tough to guard when they get into a rhythm.
Too Close for Comfort
The line is surpassingly big for an Iowa team that’s coming off a loss against an Illinois team that’s won seven in a row. Plus, the Hawkeyes haven’t had many comfortable wins lately. Bet on Illinois to beat the 4.5-point spread in a close game that could go either way.