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No. 7 Iowa renews heated rivalry with Illinois in most anticipated game of season

Mark Emmert
Hawk Central

There are no postgame handshake lines in college basketball this winter, a tradition the COVID-19 pandemic has made unthinkable.

Then again, Iowa and Illinois didn’t need the excuse of a coronavirus to avoid such generic acts of sportsmanship. These teams just aren’t interested in pretending 40 minutes of bare-knuckle basketball can be wiped clean by a fist-bump and a nod.

“They want to kill us. We want to kill them,” Illinois star guard Ayo Dosunmu said after a 78-76 victory against Iowa last March

Hawkeye guard Joe Toussaint was reminded of that sentiment Wednesday, and quickly concurred, noting that it’s not personal.

More from last season: No. 18 Hawkeyes come up just short of rival Illinois, and 4 seed in Big Ten Tournament

“I don’t really like anybody, if I’m being honest with you. That’s just how it is in basketball,” Toussaint said.

The last time the Hawkeyes and Illini met on the basketball court was March 8, 2020, the same day the first three cases of the novel coronavirus were reported in Iowa. The teams were on course to play again a week later in the Big Ten Tournament, but that event was wiped out minutes before the Hawkeyes were due to leave their Indianapolis hotel for their first game. So was the NCAA Tournament.

That meant Iowa’s season ended with that narrow loss in Champaign, Illinois, leaving the Hawkeyes with 10 months and three weeks to wait for a chance to avenge it. That moment finally arrives at 8 p.m. Friday, once again at State Farm Arena, but minus 15,544 roaring fans (advantage, Iowa). The most anticipated Hawkeye game of this regular season will be broadcast on FS1.

Iowa center Luka Garza (left) holds off Illinois counterpart Kofi Cockburn while pursuing a loose ball last March in Champaign, Ill. The rivals will meet again Friday at State Farm Arena, in the most-anticipated Hawkeye game of the season.

It is the only scheduled meeting between No. 7 Iowa (12-3, 6-2 Big Ten) and No. 22 Illinois (10-5, 6-3), a fact that left both fan bases grumbling and even drew the attention of Hawkeye star center Luka Garza.

“When your season ends, you always think about the last game because it’s the last imprint on your mind,” said Garza, who scored 28 points in the final contest of his all-American season but couldn’t connect on the basket that would have forced overtime.

“It was a tough one, and obviously it coming down to the last shot and me not being able to get a good shot off. It definitely is something that sticks in your head, you know, ‘What could I have done better?’”

As for only getting one shot at the Illini in his senior year, Garza said: “You always want to play the best in your conference twice. Especially in the Big Ten race, you want to be able to beat them as many times as you can.”

In order to beat Illinois even once, the Hawkeyes must be able to withstand a beating. That’s what they did in the first meeting a year ago, in Carver-Hawkeye Arena, making key plays down the stretch for a 72-65 victory punctuated by a Joe Wieskamp dunk and harsh words in the handshake line.

Do you remember this moment? Certainly, Iowa guard Connor McCaffery (left) and Da'Monte Williams of Illinois do. This image of them squaring off briefly in last March's game in Champaign tells you everything you need to know about the intensity and animosity of this rivalry, which resumes Friday.

A month later in Champaign, the Illini jumped the Hawkeyes, building a 16-point lead while knocking Wieskamp and guard CJ Fredrick off stride. Fredrick objected to one instance in which he felt he was being manhandled and drew a technical foul. Meanwhile, Iowa guard Connor McCaffery and Illinois counterpart Da’Monte Williams glared at each other for a few uncomfortable seconds while the referees sorted that out.

That image relays everything about the intensity, and even the animosity, that has come to define this rivalry. The first thing to watch Friday will be how tightly the game is officiated. If physical play is allowed, things could quickly turn chippy. If not, a star player or two could be forced to the bench with foul trouble.

Fredrick’s status for this game, one he would dearly love to play in after being held to three points in 31 minutes in the last meeting, is in doubt. He has an unspecified injury to his ankle or foot and missed the bulk of Iowa’s 81-69 loss to Indiana on Jan. 21.

If Fredrick can’t play, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery has a couple of primary options. One is to move his son, Connor, from power forward to shooting guard and to start either Keegan Murray or Jack Nunge in the front court.

Connor McCaffery, who had 10 points and eight assists in the game last March, is versatile enough to handle that, but he’s not the outside shooting threat that Fredrick is.

“I’ll have to adjust on who I’m guarding and maybe be a little more aggressive here and there,” he said, “because (if) CJ’s out, we lost another offensive weapon.”

It’s also possible that Fran McCaffery will take a look at a lineup that inserts Toussaint at the point and moves Jordan Bohannon to the shooting guard spot. Bohannon, who missed both of last year’s meetings with Illinois after hip surgery, is the most prolific 3-point shooter in Hawkeye history.

Earlier:New Hawkeye point guard Toussaint brings Big Apple mentality to Iowa City

Toussaint showed last year that he can thrive while playing against a team intent on trying to intimidate. He scored 14 points in 19 minutes in the loss to Illinois, even making a pair of 3-pointers. But he is happy to leave the long-range shooting to Bohannon, if that’s what is called for.

“When he gets hot, I just keep looking for him,” Toussaint said. “Obviously, I’m really fast. I can get anybody the ball.”

One more note: Bohannon is coming off an 0-for-8 shooting performance from the 3-point arc against Indiana. The only other time he even approached that level of futility was an 0-for-6 showing at Michigan State as a freshman. The next game? Iowa played Illinois; Bohannon was 3-for-4 from distance.

Those are some intriguing subplots in a game between the two teams picked to finish atop the Big Ten this winter.

But the primary storyline will surround the stars who opted to forego pro careers to take one more shot at a title, and each other.

Garza leads the nation in scoring at 26.9 points per game. Dosunmu is averaging 21.7, second in the Big Ten. Illinois center Kofi Cockburn, at a sturdy 7-foot, 285 pounds, is shooting 70.1% from the field and scoring 17.4 points per game. He leads the Big Ten with 10.3 rebounds on average.

It was Cockburn who deflected Garza’s last-second shot the last time these teams met. Garza, a perfectionist, was replaying that moment in his mind immediately afterward and likely many moments since. He didn’t want to appear overly eager for one game of 27 on Iowa’s schedule, but you could tell in Wednesday’s interviews that this matchup means more to him. And it should.

“We know that we have to focus and be able to go out there and execute our game plan in a building that’s hard to play in and against one of the best teams in the country. If you’re not motivated for this game, I think there’s something wrong with you,” Garza said.

“I want to play against the best. I don’t dodge anybody. I was excited when (Cockburn and Dosunmu) came back. It’s good for our league.”

It’s good for anyone who values spirited competition.

These teams, these players, will give fans a show to relish Friday.

Mark Emmert covers the Iowa Hawkeyes for the Register. Reach him at memmert@registermedia.com or 319-339-7367. Follow him on Twitter at @MarkEmmert.