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College basketball expert Mike Spector offers his best bet for the Big Ten battle between the Iowa Hawkeyes and the Illinois Fighting Illini Sunday night on FS1.
ANALYSIS

Illinois vs. Iowa Prediction: Will the Illini Continue to Have Iowa's Number?

At today’s conclusion, the Big Ten Conference Tournament bracket will be set, as six conference games bring an end to what was an exciting regular season. Today’s matchup between No. 24 Iowa and No. 20 Illinois is the only game featuring two ranked teams.

The Fighting Illini have won four consecutive games against the Hawkeyes in this head-to-head rivalry and will look to head into the conference tournament riding a three-game winning streak. However, Iowa has generated a lot of momentum of its own over the previous two weeks and looks to remain one of the league’s hottest teams. So which team will prevail in this highly anticipated matchup? Here are our picks and predictions for the Big Ten regular season finale between Iowa and Illinois.

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Illinois vs. Iowa Start Time, Where to Watch, and Odds

  • Date: Sunday, March 6, 2022
  • Game Time: 7:30 pm ET
  • Where to Watch: FS1

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Illinois vs. Iowa Line Movement

Illinois vs. Iowa Prediction

Iowa (22-8, 12-7) enters this game on a five-game winning streak, tied with Wisconsin for the longest active streak in the conference. More impressively, all five of those wins have come by double digits, and three of those have been on the road (at Ohio State, Nebraska, Michigan). The Hawkeyes’ only longer winning streak was when they rattled off seven consecutive wins to start the year, but just one of those wins came against a top-150 KenPom team. Thus, it is fair to say the Hawkeyes are currently playing their best basketball of the season.

As well as Iowa is playing, it will not be easy to defeat Illinois at home on Senior Night. The Illini (21-8, 14-5) have lost three home games this season, but two are to top ten teams (Arizona, Purdue). While Illinois’ offense gets a lot of the credit, and rightfully so as they average 76.3 ppg (third in the Big Ten), it is the Illini defense that has flown largely under-the-radar. Illinois ranks second in the league in adjusted defensive efficiency (per KenPom) and is the league’s second-best team in 3-point and 2-point percentage allowed. They will need a solid defensive performance against an Iowa team that leads the Big Ten in scoring (83.6 ppg).

While they may not match up with each other often, it will be fun to watch two of the best players in the league (and the country), as each head coach has their hands full trying to slow the other down. Keegan Murray (23.3 pts) and Kofi Cockburn (21 pts) rank No. 1 and 2 in the conference in scoring and are in the top three in rebounding. 

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In the first matchup between these teams, an 87-83 Illinois road victory, Murray’s status was in question coming into the game after missing most of the second half the game before with an injury. However, Murray suited up and gutted out 19 points in 30 minutes but was overshadowed by Cockburn’s 17 points and 18 rebounds. 

Cockburn’s dominance was felt more than in his points and rebounds totals, as his presence alone was seemingly responsible for all Illinois’ offense. The Hawkeyes consistently sent double teams his way, which freed up perimeter shooters like Trent Frazier and Alonso Plummer, who combined to shoot 7-for-13 from 3-point range. Jacob Grandison added four 3-pointers of his own, and the Illini shot 44% from beyond the arc as a team.

That is a microcosm of how difficult it is to defend Illinois. You have to pick your poison by going one-on-one with Cockburn in the post or risk the Illini sharpshooters burying you from deep. Not even McCaffery’s changing defensive looks (including an extended trapping zone) could get Illinois off balance. Conversely, the best way to attack Cockburn is to put him in pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop situations on defense, but that is not how Iowa’s offense is typically built. Thus, that allows Brad Underwood to play his big man more, as he is not as worried about him being a defensive liability. 

Iowa is a respectable 4-1 ATS as road underdogs, but Illinois has had the Hawkeyes’ number in recent years, which not surprisingly coincides with the arrival of Cockburn. Look for the Illinois big man to again lead his team to victory over Iowa and a subsequent cover.

Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Iowa Hawkeyes Pick

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Mike Spector brings unmatched knowledge and insight into the game of football, and more importantly the process of betting on NFL football. Mike is the #2 ranked expert in FantasyPros' NFL betting contest

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