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Iowa-Illinois: 10 things to watch (Big Ten Tournament edition)

[ 0 ] March 7, 2012 |
Illinois center Meyers Leonard

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – Ten things to watch for in Thursday’s Iowa-Illinois basketball game that kicks off the 2012  Big Ten Tournament at 10:30 a.m.:

* Letter scramble: Iowa’s postseason puzzle will be solved by this weekend. The Hawkeyes need to run the table this weekend at Bankers Life Fieldhouse to get into the NCAAs as the league’s automatic bid. Iowa needs to beat Illinois to likely remain in the NIT conversation. The CBI – a 16-team event played at campus sites – is probably not an option. No Big Ten team has ever played in the CBI.

* Scoring machines. Brandon Paul of Illinois scored 43 points against Ohio State. Matt Gatens of Iowa scored 33 points against Wisconsin. Those are the two highest-scoring games of the Big Ten regular season.

* Hot seat. The clock continues to tick on Illinois coach Bruce Weber’s future.  He’s a very nice man with a great resume who coached the Illini in an NCAA title game. But the orange and blue  wolves are after him, begging for someone like VCU’s Shaka Smart to replace Weber because of Smart’s Chicago recruiting connections.

Something has to give. Illinois won one of its last nine regular-season games. That came against Iowa, 65-54, on Feb. 26 in Champaign. Iowa has lost its first game in the Big Ten Tournament for five years running.

* The 7-footer. Meyers Leonard of Illinois controlled the paint in last month’s meeting, matching a career high with 22 points to go with 14 rebounds.

“They’ve got some other weapons,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson, Joseph Bertrand, some other guys are playing well. You can lock in on Meyers Leonard and put a scheme around him that’s going to really limit him. But you’re going to give up some things with Paul and Richardson in particular, and that just can’t happen. We’ve got to put it all together.”

* Passion play. With the exception of the Iowa game, when he brought Leonard and Paul off the bench, Weber said his team hasn’t played with passion or energy down the stretch of the season.

“ I said to our kids, “This is about passion, and having some pride,’ ” Weber said. “This (Iowa) is a team that we did beat, and we played pretty well against them, with some inspired play. We’ll see if we can muster up enough energy and emotion, and maybe get a couple of calls and shots to go down, and make enough plays that make a difference.”

* Iowa’s improved defense.  Iowa is last in the Big Ten in scoring defense at 71.6 points a game, but has held its last six opponents under that number. Only Northwestern has reached the 70-point mark.

“Hopefully we’re playing our best defense of the season,” McCaffery said.

* Rebound or go home. Illinois outrebounded Iowa in the first meeting, 35-27, including a 12-9 edge in offensive rebounds. Leonard had six of them .

“It obviously starts with him, but they’ve got some other big guys,”  McCaffery said. “They’ve got long- arm athletic wings that come in there and get rebounds as well, so we have to do a better job.  You can lose the rebounding edge in a game and survive, but not when you’re giving up multiple offensive rebounds and multiple possessions because those lead to baskets directly.”

* California Kid. Iowa has been at its best when senior point guard Bryce Cartwright has been at his best. Cartwright led the Big Ten in assists last season (6.8) and was Iowa’s No. 3 scorer overall (10.9). A head injury, pulled hamstring and high ankle sprain have limited Cartwright this season, when he averaged 6.1 points  and his Big Ten assist average dropped to 4.7.

“He’s had a very unique season in light of his injury situation,” McCaffery said. “I’m proud of how he perservered.  Because he certainly had high expectations for himself, and we had a higher expectation for him, but it was all out of his control. I do think at one point his confidence was not what it needed to be.  We tried to challenge him and then to back off from it to kind of help him through it.  But our running game is so much better when he’s out there.”

* Grounded May. Iowa junior forward Eric May has seen limited time down the stretch while struggling with a back issue. He’s not played more than 8 minutes in any of the last six games.

“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.  So he’s given us what he can give us, and I appreciate that.  He’s a terrific competitor.”

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Category: Iowa Hawkeyes men's basketball

About Rick Brown: Rick Brown covers men's basketball for The Des Moines Register and Hawk Central. He's married and the father of two. He also covers golf for the Register. View author profile.

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