IOWA CITY, Iowa – The Iowa men’s basketball team earned respect and praise, even in defeat at No. 2 Purdue this past Friday.
Playing without its leading scorer, Keegan Murray, and in one of the most hostile environments in the Big Ten, Iowa could’ve wilted under the pressure when Purdue built a 19-point lead in the second half.
But instead, the Hawkeyes trimmed the deficit to two points and nearly pulled off what would’ve been a huge upset before falling 77-70 at a sold-out Mackey Arena.
Iowa’s performance not only raised eyebrows, it also built confidence for a team that is filled with players who are either adjusting to new roles or playing significant minutes for the first time, or both.
The challenge now is to keep building, but that’s much easier said than done in the Big Ten.
Illinois is up next for Iowa on Monday at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, and just like with Purdue, the Fighting Illini are considered one of the top contenders for a Big Ten title, and have one of the best players in conference.
It’s also a home game, so the threat of falling to 0-2 in conference play with a home loss should be motivation for the Iowa players.
The difference between being 1-1 or 0-2 might not be much from a numbers’ standpoint, but it matters because the best way to avoid struggling in conference play is to protect your homecourt.
As impressive as Iowa’s performance was against Purdue, it still was a loss and would also lose some of its glow if Iowa stumbles against Illinois at home.
While calling the second of 20 conference games a must-win might be overstating it, there still needs to be a sense urgency from Iowa’s standpoint to avoid an 0-2 start.
Fran McCaffery held a zoom conference with the media on Sunday and he couldn’t answer when asked if the 6-foot-8 Murray would play against Illinois.
“I’m not 100 percent (sure) to be honest with you,” McCaffery said.
Keegan Murray, who is the nation’s second leading scorer with a 24.6 per-game average, injured his right ankle in Iowa’s 75-74 victory at Virginia last Tuesday in Charlottesville, Virginia.
He left Mackey Arena after the Purdue game three days later with his right ankle wrapped in ice.
Iowa showed without Keegan Murray that it could compete with what will probably be the top-ranked team in the nation when the Associated Press poll is released on Monday in Purdue.
But to keep having to show that against elite competition could be asking too much, especially against an Illinois frontline that is led by 7-0 foot, 285-pound junior center Kofi Cockburn, who averages 24 points and 10.6 rebounds per game.
Cockburn declared for the 2021 NBA Draft, but chose to return to Illinois for one more season.
And so far, the decision is paying dividends for him, and for his team as Illinois (6-2, 1-0) enters Monday’s contest having won four consecutive games. Its most recent wins were over Notre Dame (82-72) and Rutgers (86-51) in Champaign last week.
“I think he’s playing the best basketball of his life,” Fran McCaffery said of Cockburn, who was the conference’s preseason player of the year.
Cockburn is the main reason Illinois is ranked eighth in the nation in rebounding margin at plus-12.4.
Illinois held Rutgers to 31 percent shooting from the field, and was led in scoring by 6-1 senior guard Alfonso Plummer with 24 points. Plummer transferred to Illinois from Utah before the season.
Plummer is tied for first in the nation in free throw percentage having made all 23 of his attempts this season.
Iowa received a boost against Purdue from sophomore center Josh Ogundele, who scored seven points off the bench. His size at 6-10 and 245 pounds could help to at least make things more difficult for Cockburn near the basket.
Iowa vs. Illinois
When: Monday, 6 p.m.
Where: Carver-Hawkeye Arena
Radio: Hawkeye Radio Network
Series: Illinois holds an 88-76 advantage in the series. The Fighting Illini have won three straight, including both meetings last year, after the Hawkeyes won five in a row. Iowa holds a 56-22 advantage in games played in Iowa City, including a 21-12 margin in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. The Hawkeyes have won the last two meetings in Iowa City, dating back to 2019. Illinois’ last victory in Carver-Hawkeye Arena was a 70-66 triumph on Feb. 18, 2017.