By Pat Harty
IOWA CITY, Iowa – Two of the biggest surprises in the Big Ten, including the current leader in the conference standings, will square off before a sellout crowd on Sunday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena when Iowa faces Illinois.
One game certainly doesn’t make or break a season, but Sunday’s contest, which tips off at noon, is critical for both teams as they try to navigate through a rugged 20-game Big Ten schedule.
Winning at home is a must for every Big Ten due to how difficult it is to win on the road this season.
But that is especially true in the case of Iowa with it coming off a loss at Maryland on Thursday and then having to play at Purdue this coming Wednesday.
The last thing Iowa wants is the pressure of carrying a two-game losing streak into the Purdue game.
Illinois, on the other hand, has to win on Sunday to keep sole possession of first place in the conference with Michigan State having lost at Wisconsin on Saturday.
Brad Underwood has done a masterful job of rebuilding the Illinois program in just his third season as head coach.
His team is riding a seven-game winning streak, and during the streak, the Fighting Illini have won five games by eight points or less, including four contests by four points or fewer.
So it appears that the Illinois players know how to handle pressure and how to respond with the game on the line.
It helps to have talented guards and Illinois definitely has that in sophomore Ayo Dosunmu, juniors Trent Frazier and Da'Monte Williams and senior Andre Feliz.
It has been a while since Iowa and Illinois have played a game of this significance. You might have to look back to the 1980s to find one that had a similar impact on the conference standings.
The matchup at center between Iowa junior Luka Garza and Illinois freshman Kofi Cockburn could go a long way in determining the outcome.
The 6-foot-11 Garza has been dominant on offense and currently leads the conference in scoring with a 23.0 per-game average, while the 7-0, 290-pound Cockburn is averaging 14.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
"A player of the year candidate, nationally just not in our league in Luka Garza," Underwood said. "A guy that's an unrelenting worker. I have tremendous appreciation watching him play, how hard he works constantly.
"He scores it at every level. A very, very good free throw shooter. He's got a great face-up game, off the block, 16, 17 feet, and I think he's shooting 37 percent fron the 3-point line. So he's a guy that becomes a handful."
Underwood also had high praise for Iowa freshman guards C.J. Fredrick and Joe Toussaint.
"The Fredrick kid is one of the best freshmen in this league as an elite shooter," Underwood said. "And Toussaint is a jet in a tank's body. He's a really, strong, fast kid and puts pressure on the defense with his speed.
"So this is a team that is playing awfully well and has a great, great player that helps to eleveate everybody else because of Luka's presence."
The 6-5 Dosunmu also has emerged as a star this season and is averaging a team-leading 16.0 points per game. The Chicago native has shown a knack for making big shots at pivotal times.
The Illinois players will have to withstand the energy and distractions that'll come from what should be a raucous crowd on Sunday.
The Iowa fans are excited about their team's improbable rise, and that why the Iowa players have to seize the moment.
DePaul is the only team to have defeated Iowa at home this season, but that happened way back on Nov. 11th in the second game, and appears to be a fluke.
Garza and his cohorts have shown that they can be successful without injured starters Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge, but there still is time for the season to unravel.
That’s why Sunday’s game is so important.
Iowa vs. Illinois
When: Sunday, 12:01 p.m.
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Records/rankings: Illinois is 16-5 overall and 8-2 in the Big Ten and ranked 19th in the Associated Press poll. Iowa is 15-6, 6-4 and ranked 19th.
All-time series: Illinois holds an 85-75 advantage in the series. The Hawkeyes have won four straight over the Illini, including both contests last season: 95-71 in Iowa City and 83-62 in Chicago. Iowa holds a 55-22 advantage in games played in Iowa City, including a 20-12 margin in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The two teams have split the last six meetings in Iowa City, dating back to 2010. Illinois’ last victory in Carver-Hawkeye Arena was a 70-66 triumph on Feb. 18, 2017.