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Illinois Looks to Avenge Last Loss in Iowa City

Illinois last won at Iowa in February 2017.
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Photo: IlliniMBB/Twitter

The last time Illinois traveled to Iowa, Fran McCaffery and former Illinois assistant coach Ron Coleman had some choice words for each other. That led to both teams avoiding the customary postgame handshake.

Believe it or not, that game was just a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic.

It didn't help that Iowa decided to push the stake harder into the hearts of Illini fans and coaches when the game was already over.

All in all, words were said, and Coleman is now at Kentucky. That incident doesn't matter anymore. However, there are still players from that game who likely have not forgotten how it ended.

The Rivalry

The Illinois-Iowa Big Ten rivalry has only intensified since the two teams last met at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Illinois has become a powerhouse in the Big Ten. If there were an NCAA Tournament in 2020, the Illini would have participated. Illinois lost one Big Ten game last season en route to a No. 1 seed and Big Ten Tournament title.

Out in Iowa, last year's race for the Naismith Men's College Player of the Year award between Ayo Dosunmu and Luka Garza ended in Garza's favor. Both players' respective teams were nationally ranked programs in 2021 and both squads won a game in the NCAA Tournament.

Monday's game is more than another Big Ten matchup.

What To Expect From Iowa

The last three games between these programs have come down to the wire with Illinois winning all three -- two in Champaign and one in the Big Ten Tournament last season.

Iowa (7-1) has sped out as one of the more surprising teams in the conference after being picked to finish 10th by CBS and similarly by ESPN.

The prediction is low because the Hawkeyes are without Garza (NBA), Joe Wieskamp (NBA), CJ Fredrick (Kentucky transfer), and Jack Nunge (Xavier transfer).

The Hawkeyes' surprise success has everything to do with sophomore Keegan Murray. The forward is averaging 24.6 points per game, good for second in the nation. As one of Iowa's top defensive players, Murray leads the Hawkeyes in blocks per game (2.3).

Despite missing him due to injury on Friday at No. 2-ranked Purdue, Iowa only lost by seven points.

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Murray's injury status is still in question, but Illinois should expect him to suit up for the Hawkeyes in this heated rivalry.

"He's a little better than he was (Thursday)," McCaffery said. "... As long as he’s ready to go, he’ll jump right back in there.”

- Fran McCaffery on Keegan Murray's injury status

Patrick McCaffery, Kris Murray, and Tony Perkins carried the Iowa offense against Purdue. Illinois (6-2) will also see a familiar face, super senior Jordan Bohannon. The Hawkeyes will look to force more turnovers, as they did against the Boilermakers on Friday when they compiled 17.

Iowa kept Purdue to just 42 percent shooting on their way to a moral victory with their top player out.

Illinois Starting To Build Momentum

Whether Murray plays or not, the Hawkeyes will have to find a way to slow down Kofi Cockburn. That's easier said than done.

Cockburn is averaging 24.0 points and 10.6 rebounds for Illinois, and he put together another dominant performance with 13 points and 15 rebounds in the Illini's 86-51 blowout win over Rutgers on Friday.

After falling out of the AP Top 25 poll, Illinois played its best game of the season, defeating Notre Dame and following that win-up with a commanding performance in their Big Ten opener. The Illini did it all without point guard Andre Curbelo, who is battling an upper-body injury.

Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer has picked his game up in Curbelo's absence, averaging 15.1 points per game and shooting 42 percent from the perimeter. His hot scoring hot streak started when the Illini battled Kansas State. Plummer has scored 20 or more points in four consecutive games, including one 30-point performance.

Illinois has yet to play its best basketball, and it won't happen until Curbelo is consistently back in the lineup. But due to a deadly inside-out attack with Cockburn, the Illini are getting impactful contributions from freshman Luke Goode and RJ Melendez.

Goode is 4-for-10 from three-point range in his last three games, all of which saw him play 10-plus minutes. Melendez logged 14 meaningful minutes against Notre Dame, scoring six points off the bench on a 2-for-2 showing from three-point territory.

As mentioned in my season preview, the Illini freshmen roles will increase as the season goes along.

Nonetheless, both have recently provided energy and outside shooting off the bench to keep opponents honest, allowing Cockburn to score in the post without a double team.

How This Game Affects The Big Ten

Unless Murray and Curbelo play, this game won't mean much for the rest of the Big Ten. It's early December, meaning there is still plenty of basketball left.

Illinois last won at Iowa in February 2017. The Illini lead the all-time series 88-76. Illinois fans hope the record increases Monday night on Fox Sports 1. Tip-off is at 6 PM CST.