Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Iowa Hawkeyes Pick & Prediction FEBRUARY 24th 2024

It’s nearly impossible to lose a game in regulation when you’re ahead by seven points and regain possession of the ball with one minute to go.

Yet that’s exactly what No. 12 Illinois accomplished Wednesday night in a 90-89 loss at Penn State.

The Fighting Illini (19-7, 10-5 Big Ten) look to rebound from that setback on Saturday afternoon against Iowa (16-11, 8-8) in Champaign, Ill.

It won’t be easy for the Illini to shake off the shock of their loss to the Nittany Lions. They led by 14 points in the second half and 10 with 2:30 to play.

“We did just about everything wrong in the last 2 1/2 minutes,” Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. “Can’t give up 55 percent field-goal percentage in the second half and win. Disappointed in that.”

Can you be more specific about your disappointments, Coach?

“Blown assignments, probably,” Underwood said. “Our attention to detail is not very good. Our lack of physicality was evident. (The Nittany Lions) just knocked us around.”

One sign of the Illini’s inattention to detail: They surrendered three unguarded layups when Penn State was inbounding underneath the basket. Another sign: They gave up multiple backdoor cuts for layups.

Underwood suggested he might start withholding playing time if the defense doesn’t improve, but he hasn’t gone more than seven-deep in the second half of any competitive Big Ten game.

“Start with playing time,” Underwood said. “And subbing guys out. We should be beyond that point. We can’t afford those. Justin (Harmon) gave up four cuts for layups. And then it’s six points on out-of-bounds plays that we covered (in our scouting report). Those are deals that cause you to lose.”

Illinois allowed Penn State to match its season high of 90 points, and the Nittany Lions rank 10th among Big Ten teams in offensive efficiency in league play. Imagine the struggles the Illini might have with Iowa’s third-ranked offense.

The Hawkeyes shot 50 percent in their back-to-back wins over Wisconsin and Michigan State that have put them back on the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Illinois has struggled to stop good guards — and Tony Perkins (16.8 points, 4.5 assists per game) and Payton Sandfort (16.1 ppg, 45 3-pointers) have been the Hawkeyes’ engines during Big Ten play. When Perkins reeled off scoring efforts of 24, 20, 24, 22 and 20 from Jan. 20 to Feb. 2, he became the first Iowa guard to put together five straight 20-point games since Fred Brown in 1971.

Illinois already knew Perkins can go off. When Iowa edged Illinois 81-79 in last year’s only meeting between the teams, Perkins piled up a career-high 32 points as he canned 8 of 11 shots from the field and 15 of 16 from the foul line.

With that in mind, Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, like Underwood, is far more concerned about how his defense plays Saturday.

“We’re going to be fighting an angry group with multiple drivers (to the hoop) and a lot of size,” said McCaffery, who watched the final seconds of Illinois’ loss to Penn State while making his weekly Hawk Talk appearance. “I think the key is try to keep fresh people out there as much as you can. That’s one of the problems with shortening the bench.

“You look at Tony, Payton and Ben (Krikke). Those guys have played a lot of minutes these last two games. We’ve got other guys ready to go. But you’ve got to get that first miss. The defensive intensity wanes if you give up two, three, four shots. You can’t do it.”

–Field Level Media

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