CHAMPAIGN, Ill. – The name has been changed. Maybe to protect the innocent.
Assembly Hall has been renamed State Farm Center, but that doesn’t change the fact that Iowa has lost 11 straight games in the home of Illinois basketball heading into Saturday’s 6:30 p.m. Big Ten contest.
“I don’t think anybody pays any attention to what happened 11 years ago,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said, although it’s actually been 15 years since the Hawkeyes won in Champaign.
In 1999, Iowa beat the Illini in the 13th and final season of the Tom Davis era. Davis also saw his team win there in 1987, on his first visit. It was a memorable 91-88 overtime triumph over the fifth-ranked Illini, when Iowa rallied from a 22-point deficit with 16 minutes remaining in regulation. Five days later the Hawkeyes moved to No. 1 in the Associated Press poll for the first time ever.
Those are Iowa’s only victories in the last 24 games here. And Saturday would be a perfect time to reverse that trend. No. 15 Iowa, 16-5 overall and 5-3 in the Big Ten, is coming off a 71-69 overtime loss to No. 7 Michigan State on Tuesday that snapped its 20-game Carver-Hawkeye Arena winning streak.
Iowa’s five losses this season have all been to teams in the Top 25. Illinois, ranked earlier this season, is on a six-game losing streak and tied for last in the Big Ten with Penn State at 2-6. The Illini haven’t played since Sunday’s 56-46 loss at Indiana. The Hawkeyes have not lost back-to-back games this season.
After the loss to Michigan State, McCaffery questioned his team’s toughness. Asked how his team responded to his critique, McCaffery said, “We won’t know until we play. They’re fine. They’re always fine.”
McCaffery dismissed the idea that Illinois, 13-8 overall, has fallen on hard times.
“They’re playing good teams,” the fourth-year Iowa coach said. “That’s really all it is.”
In a crazy week that saw Penn State win at Ohio State and Northwestern win at Wisconsin, seven Big Ten teams have already lost at least five times in conference play.
“If you would have listened to what I’ve been saying, it’s exactly what I expected,” McCaffery said. “There’s no league in the country as good, top to bottom, as our league.”
Junior guard Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from Drake, leads Illinois in scoring at 16.7 points a game. He faced Iowa twice as a Bulldog, averaging 18.5 points in a pair of Hawkeye victories.
“I thought he was tremendous at Drake,” McCaffery said. “He’s in incredible shape physically, and I think he’s really committed himself to getting in the weight room. He’s really powerful. But his game is the same in terms of he can shoot it from 3 range, he can put it on the deck and go either way. He can post up. He can play in traffic. He rebounds the ball. He does a lot of things to help your team win.”
Rice has had to carry the load offensively for the Illini. While Iowa leads the Big Ten in scoring both overall (84.5 points) and in league games (77.6), Illinois is 11th. The Illini average 67.5 points overall, and 61.5 in Big Ten play.
“We’re fully aware that our offense has to get better,” Illinois coach John Groce said.
Iowa’s defense will be just as important as its offense if it wants to secure a rare, and much needed, victory Saturday.
“What you have is an experienced team that recognizes that’s required,” McCaffery said. “First of all, it’s required because that’s what other teams are doing to us. Pretty much across the board it’s been excellent. At Michigan (a 75-67 loss), it was just OK. As upset as I was with some things (against Michigan State), our half-court defense was very good.”
Who: No. 15 Iowa (16-5, 5-3 Big Ten) vs. Illinois (13-8, 2-6)
Specifics: 6:30 p.m. at State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.
Radio: WHO (1040 AM)
Preview: Iowa blocked a school-record 13 shots, seven by Gabe Olaseni, in last season’s only meeting, a 63-55 Hawkeye victory in Iowa City. Illinois is 9-2 at home this season, losing to Purdue (66-58) and Michigan State (78-62).
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball