The Iowa men’s basketball team failed the last time it took part in Operation Contain the Big Guy.
The Hawkeyes will take part in the operation again, but under different circumstances when they face Illinois’ talented 7-foot sophomore center Meyers Leonard in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament on Thursday at Banker’s Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis.
Leonard came off the bench to score 22 points, grab 14 rebounds and block two shots during a 65-54 victory over Iowa on Feb. 26 at Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill.
It was the only time the teams met during the regular season and the only game Illinois won over its last nine regular-season contests.
“Containing Meyers Leonard better, that’s a big key,” said sophomore guard Devyn Marble, who was one of just two players for Iowa to score in double figures against Illinois in the first game with 10 points. “He had a double-double, so we’ve got limit him as much as possible.
“It’s going to be a challenge. You know he’s seven feet (tall). He’s big and strong.”
Iowa would have to win the Big Ten Tournament in order to make NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006. It’s also widely believed that Iowa, which finished the regular season 16-15 overall and 8-10 in the Big Ten, would have to win at least one or two games in the conference tournament to be considered for the National Invitation Tournament.
The College Basketball Invitational is another postseason option for Iowa, which has had four consecutive losing seasons and hasn’t played in a postseason tournament since losing on a last-second shot to Northwestern State in the first round of the 2006 NCAA Tournament.
However, no Big Ten team has ever played in the CBI, which is a 16-team event held on campus sites.
“I don’t know what the outlook is for that right now,” senior guard Matt Gatens said when asked about Iowa’s postseason chances. “We’d like to go over there and help those chances out, and hopefully, be playing next week.”
Iowa is the only team to win the Big Ten Tournament by winning four games in four days. It pulled that off in 2001 under then second-year coach Steve Alford and after finishing just 7-9 in Big Ten play.
Iowa has posted a 13-12 record in the conference tournament, which started in 1998, but this will be first time that Iowa has faced Illinois in the event.
Iowa and Illinois are headed in opposite directions with the Hawkeyes already having won five more games than last season and with the Illini in disarray after starting the season with a 15-3 record.
There is growing speculation Illinois coach Bruce Weber will be fired after the season.
But there also is the wounded-animal theory that says Illinois could be a dangerous team.
In addition to Leonard, Illinois also features 6-4 junior guard Brandon Paul, who scored 43 points in a victory over Ohio State in January. Paul also came off the bench and scored 17 points in the victory over Iowa.
“Obviously, they can beat anybody in our league,” McCaffery said. “We’ve got our hands full and so does everybody else.”
Senior point guard Bryce Cartwright has been plagued by injuries throughout the season and he made a costly turnover late in Saturday’s 70-66 loss to Northwestern.
But history shows that when Cartwright plays well, Iowa usually plays well. He led the team or shared the team lead in assists in 10 of the last 12 regular-season games. He also ranks fourth in the Big Ten in assists with a 4.3 per-game average after leading the conference in assists last season.
“We need Bryce to play well, there’s no question,” McCaffery said. “He’s had a very unique season in light of his injury situation. I’m proud of how he persevered because he certainly had high expectations for himself, and we had higher expectations for him. But it was all out of his control.”
McCaffery said he would likely start Cartwright over freshman Josh Oglesby, but it’s uncertain if junior swingman Eric May will play much because of a lingering back problem.
The 6-5 May has missed two games because of the back injury and he hasn’t played more than eight minutes in any of the last six games.
When healthy, May is one of the most explosive players on the team, especially when driving to the basket.
“I don’t think he’s doing great,” McCaffery said. “He’s really trying. He’s better than he was, but he has no explosion, which is what his game is.”
Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball