Feb. 23, 2004
What do you get when you match a team battling to keep close to the top of the grab-bag Big Ten standings with a team battling for first place? Iowa coach Steve Alford is hoping for some fireworks as Iowa will play host to Illinois at 6 p.m. Wednesday.
“I think you have tow teams that are confident – one team that’s battling to stay in first place, one team is battling to stay ahead of the pack,” he said. “I think it’s a game that should be a lot of fun for people going into Carver on Wednesday night. (They’ll see) two teams that are going to give it everything that they have to get a win.”
There isn’t any question as to which team is playing which role in the matchup. Iowa enters Wednesday’s contest alone in fourth place of the Big Ten standings with a 7-5 conference record and a Ratings Percentage Index of 77. Illinois comes in with a 9-3 conference record and a 37 RPI.
The Illini defeated the Hawkeyes 88-82 amid lineup alterations and uncertainty last month. They’ve also managed to string together a six-game winning streak.
“They are scary,” Alford said. “One, they’re very, very talented. (James) Augustine is healthier than when we played them the first time. Again, I think it takes awhile, but I think they’re buying into (Coach Bruce Weber’s system) much better than they did a month, two months ago. And anytime you get on a streak, it helps you.”
Augustine, a 6-foot-10 sophomore forward, has averaged 10 points per game this season, but has a team-high 63.5 shooting percentage. Guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown still lead the team with 13.9 and 12.3 points per game respectively.
If Illinois wins at Iowa and Michigan State (15-9, 10-3) loses at in-state rival Michigan tomorrow night, the Illini will have first place in the conference. In that situation, the Hawkeyes had better hope Purdue loses at Wisconsin on Saturday to maintain fourth place.
However if Iowa emerges victorious against Illinois and some bad luck falls upon Michigan State, Wisconsin and the Illini the rest of the season, the Hawkeyes could win its first Big Ten Championship since 1979.
Don’t think that fact is lost on the current coach and team.
“There’s an awful lot that can happen in a two-week frame,” said Alford. “And we can go anywhere from battling for the whole thing to ending up 7-9 and not being in any of it. So obviously every game is huge and this next game is very big for us.”
“There’s an awful lot that can happen in a two-week frame. And we can go anywhere from battling for the whole thing to ending up 7-9 and not being in any of it. So obviously every game is huge and this next game is very big for us.”
Head Coach Steve Alford
“We’re definitely looking forward to both games,” senior guard Brody Boyd said. “It’s going to be a rough week, but we’re going to get after it. What we do these next few games sets up what we do in March. It’s going to be a lot of fun, and we’re going to take it one game at a time.”
“One game at a time” has become a mantra around Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
“It’s the biggest (game) until Wednesday,” said Alford, “then we’ll look at Saturday. I think from here on out you’ll be saying that. I think that every team you look at, every game is huge.
“We just have to keep it one game at a time,” he added. “We’ve got an Illinois team that’s fighting for first place – a very good RPI team, the best team as far as record and RPI that we have left on our schedule. We compare it to our Wisconsin game, where if you get a win over a team like this it’s really going to help you late in the year.”
Indeed, Wednesday’s game launches a tough final two weeks for the Hawkeyes, as each game slowly determines whether they’ll make it to the NCAA tournament next month.
“We control our destiny to a point,” Alford said. “We know we’re in fourth place and we control our destiny as to whether we move up some. (The team) understands that. They know that. It’s just a mindset of making plays down the stretch.”
Barry Pump, hawkeyesports.com