Illinois' quick guards present stiff test for Hawkeyes
IOWA CITY, Ia. – For Iowa basketball players to have a ninth Big Ten Conference win in their pocket late Wednesday night, the result could come down to how badly they want it.
They know that it'll take an amped-up defensive effort to stop a talented Illinois team that also has a lot at stake.
When Iowa lost at Northwestern on Feb. 15, Iowa forward Jarrod Uthoff said Hawkeye effort was lacking across the board. The Hawkeyes gave up nine 3-pointers in that disappointing outcome, repeatedly failing to cover open shooters.
If that happens again in Wednesday's 8 p.m. game, the Illini could be walking out of Carver-Hawkeye Arena with a win for the second straight year.
"You've got to get out on the shooters," Uthoff said. "You can't allow any open early looks to get them going. Just shut them down right from the get-go."
With Illinois, it's all about the guards — which is why stopping the 3-pointer is so critical.
The Illini have three guards averaging double figures in scoring — 6-foot-4 Rayvonte Rice at 15.9 points a game, 6-6 Malcolm Hill at 14.7 and 6-3 Kendrick Nunn at 11.5. Between them, they have 111 3-pointers this season – and that's with Rice, a Drake transfer, missing a combined nine games with a broken hand and a conduct-related suspension.
"It's going to be our job as guards — me, Mike (Gesell), Pete (Jok), Josh (Oglesby) — to try to contain them and not let them have an all-American night," said Iowa's resident defensive stopper, Anthony Clemmons.
The Illini, like Iowa, are 17-10 overall. But Illinois is one game behind the 8-6 Hawkeyes in Big Ten play at 7-7. They actually went 6-3 with Rice out, and are 1-2 since his return.
"We haven't quite found our rhythm yet, which tells me we can get a lot better," Illinois coach John Groce said. "I've seen a lot of improvement with that since he came back. … Guys are getting used to playing with him again in the rotation."
The Illinois guards pose the challenge of being able to drive the lane as well as they can shoot it.
"I think our length will help us," said Aaron White, one of three Hawkeye starters 6-foot-9 or taller. "It's not perfect. You can't guard both, if they're going to drive by you, you've got to have help. You've got to be up on the (3-point) line if they have shooters."
Iowa's defense, like its season, has been up-and-down. It's held six opponents in the 40s — including the last two, in wins over Rutgers (81-47) and Nebraska (74-46).
The Illini have been limited to 49 and 53 points in their last two games — losses to Wisconsin and Michigan State, in which they shot just 6-of-27 from 3-point land (22 percent).
The Hawkeyes need to keep them in their funk to put together their first three-game winning streak of the Big Ten season. A win would put them within one victory from their first above-.500 Big Ten season since 2006-07.
"I didn't know that," White said. "It would be nice to do something that hasn't been done in a while."
Iowa (17-10, 8-6 Big Ten) vs. Illlinois (17-10, 7-7)
• Specifics — 8 p.m., Carver-Hawkeye Arena, Iowa City.
• Following the game — TV: Big Ten Network. Radio: WHO (1040 AM), WMT (600 AM) and the Hawkeye network. Live scoring: livestats.hawkeyesports.com.
• Preview — Iowa is coming off back-to-back Big Ten wins by 28 or more points for the first time since 1995-96, the Tom Davis era. ... The Hawkeyes are 16-1 when scoring 64 or more points, the lone loss coming to Iowa State. ... Aaron White (1,697 points) needs nine points to surpass B.J. Armstrong for No. 4 all-time on Iowa's scoring list. ... Last year in Iowa City, Jon Ekey made a 3-pointer with 0.5 seconds left to lift Illinois to a stunning 66-63 victory.