Improving Illinois a tricky matchup for Hawkeyes in Big Ten Tournament opener

Chad Leistikow
Hawk Central

NEW YORK — From the coach’s full garment bag to academic support staff, Illinois is prepared for an extended stay at the Big Ten Conference Tournament.

It might seem more sensible for a team seeded 13th out of 14 to expect an early check-out.

But, with the Illini having played at nearby Rutgers on Sunday, plans were in place for the team to stay in New York for more than a week.

Illinois coach Brad Underwood instructs guard Mark Smith (13) during the Illini's 104-97 overtime loss to Iowa on Jan. 11. Underwood says his team is much improved since that matchup.

If Illinois were to advance all the way to Sunday's Big Ten title game, it would have played six games in the New York area in eight days.


“We’ve been planning and filing waivers,” Illini first-year coach Brad Underwood said. “We’ve got our academic people here.

“I brought enough clothes to look like my whole closet is here.”

The way the Illini (14-17 overall, 4-14 Big Ten) have been trending lately, Underwood might cycle through multiple suits.

They’re young. They’re improving. They're shooting the 3 well.

They’re the type of team that can get hot and make a run. Illinois’ tournament opener comes against 12th-seeded Iowa (13-18, 4-14) at 4:30 p.m. CT Wednesday inside legendary Madison Square Garden.

The winner would face No. 5 seed Michigan at approximately 1:30 p.m. CT Thursday.

Iowa won the teams’ lone meeting, on Jan. 11, in which the Hawkeyes rallied from a 20-point first-half deficit to emerge, 104-97 in overtime in Champaign, Ill.

“I was impressed with Illinois,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said Monday. “And I mean that sincerely. I thought they were ready to play. They compete as well as any team on our schedule. Brad’s got them playing hard. They share the ball. They play with a lot of guys. They play with a lot of energy.”

Late-February Illinois is much different than the mid-January version.

First, the Illini didn’t have starting guard Te’Jon Lucas against Iowa because of a rules violation. The distributing 6-foot-1 guard has drawn opposing teams’ best perimeter defender of late.

Second, Illinois finished the Big Ten campaign with a 4-6 mark after a 0-8 start, including a recent win vs. No. 4 seed Nebraska.

“I would like to think we’re playing a lot better (than on Jan. 11),” Underwood said. “I think we’re playing better offensively. I think we’ve grown some defensively, in terms of not making as many mistakes. Our bench has gotten better.”

This smells like a difficult matchup for Iowa.

Underwood’s style, which he employed at Stephen F. Austin and then Oklahoma State in reaching the past four NCAA Tournaments, instills high-powered offense and in-your-face defense.

In Illinois’ last four games, it’s committed a total of only 30 turnovers (7.5 per game) while raining in 36 3-pointers (9.0 per game). The Hawkeyes’ season, as it turns out, has been marred by high-turnover sequences and continued struggles to defend the 3.

Illinois’ top five scorers are all threats to knock down a 3-pointer, led by freshman Trent Frazier’s 58.

“We were a team that was turning the ball over a lot early,” Underwood said. “I think we’ve eliminated some of those. And then we’re shooting the ball better, which always helps.”