3 months later, a very different Iowa men's basketball team seeks better result vs. Illinois
So much can change over the course of three months, especially during a college basketball season. But in the eyes of Iowa men's basketball coach Fran McCaffery, not much has changed for No. 20 Illinois, his team's opponent on Sunday.
On Dec. 6, the Illini (21-8, 14-5 Big Ten) handed Iowa (22-8, 12-7) its second straight conference loss. Since then, guard Andre Curbelo has gotten healthy and McCaffery has seen that team continue to play well and, as a result, have a chance to claim a share of the Big Ten regular season championship.
Iowa's changes over that time are much more dramatic.
It is one of the hottest teams in the country, winning eight of its past nine and, with a win on Sunday, it can secure a coveted double bye at next week's Big Ten conference tournament. In order to do that, the Hawkeyes will have to perform better in certain areas that plagued them in their last matchup with Illinois.
The biggest area of concern from the December game was rebounding. Illinois outrebounded Iowa by an overwhelming 52-24 margin. During this recent nine-game stretch, Iowa has outrebounded opponents six times and hasn't lost the rebounding battle by more than three in any game.
"I think it's a little more attention to detail," McCaffery said on Saturday. "Playing with a little more physicality. That was strange — normally you get outrebounded by 29 and you lose by 29. We were able to hang in there, which is good, but I think that was something we had to come to grips with and it's a mindset you have to have."
Adjusting their mindset isn't exclusive to rebounding. It comes down to starting halves better offensively, too. Against Illinois, the Hawkeyes trailed by only three at halftime but a slow second-half start turned their deficit into a 15-point hole. During this streak, they've executed better at the start of each period.
As a result, the offense has been more consistent throughout the game. Iowa has scored 700 points over its past eight games (87.5 points per game), which is the most points by any team in an eight-game span of Big Ten play since 1995.
In their last game against Michigan, the Hawkeyes raced out to a large lead and secured a wire-to-wire win despite several comeback attempts from the Wolverines.
"We're beating teams early," sophomore Keegan Murray said after their win over Michigan. "Early first half, late first half and early in the second half, we're figuring out how to win games late and keep our lead."
McCaffery and his team hope these late-season improvements will yield a more positive result in Champaign, Illinois, on Sunday. Another ranked win on the road might be what the Hawkeyes need to earn a 6-seed in the NCAA Tournament. For now, that double-bye is their main focus.
Good news for Iowa? It has won its past four road games.
"Obviously (the double bye) gives you a much better chance to win the whole thing," McCaffery said. "That's what everyone is aspiring to do. You're more fresh and hopefully we can make that happen."
Injury update for Iowa basketball vs. Illinois
McCaffery said on Saturday that starting forward Patrick McCaffery (hip) will be a game-time decision after he suffered a setback following Thursday's game at Michigan. The sophomore returned to the starting lineup after a one-game absence but only played five minutes in the second half.
On the Illinois side, head coach Brad Underwood said starting guard Jacob Grandison, who scored 21 points in the Dec. 6 matchup, will also be game-time decision after suffering shoulder injury late in Thursday's game against Penn State.
Kennington Lloyd Smith III covers Iowa Hawkeyes football and men's basketball for the Des Moines Register. You can connect with Kennington on Twitter @SkinnyKenny_ or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.