Illinois rounding into form headed into game at Iowa

As Illinois and Iowa prepare to meet Monday night in Iowa City, Fighting Illini coach Brad Underwood wants to make one thing clear.

“This team, I’m telling you, is going to compete for a championship,” Underwood said.

Which team was he referencing? Not his.

“Iowa is that good. They’ve just re-shifted. They’ve got great depth. This is a really good Iowa team.”

Illinois (6-2, 1-0 Big Ten) and Iowa (7-1, 0-1) both head into Monday’s game feeling really good about themselves.

The Fighting Illini thwacked Rutgers 86-51 in their Big Ten opener Friday night.

Iowa gave impending No. 1 Purdue everything it wanted in West Lafayette, Ind., before falling 77-70 — and the Hawkeyes did it without their best player.

Sophomore power forward Keegan Murray sat out at Purdue with a bad ankle, but the nation’s No. 2 scorer, who’s nearly averaging a point a minute (24.6 ppg in 26.1 mpg), should return to face Illinois.

“Keegan’s playing extremely well,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said. “We’re looking forward to getting him back. But he can’t do it all himself — and he has been getting help. This (effort at Purdue) is a great confidence-booster for the other guys.”

The Hawkeyes have been employing a 10-man rotation to carry out their uptempo offense and pressure defense. Patrick McCaffery (12.0 ppg), Kris Murray (11.7 ppg) and sixth-year senior Jordan Bohannon (10.5 ppg) also average double figures for a squad that has gone 6-0 at home with an average victory margin of 31.7 points.

Illinois, which has won four in a row, believes it achieved a breakthrough against Rutgers. The Illini did the right things defensively and limited the Scarlet Knights to 31 percent shooting while outrebounding the visitors 47-33.

“I thought we were focused, I thought we were dialed-in,” Underwood said. “The mental side is what I’m challenging my guys to (repeat). We’ve only got 20 of these (Big Ten games). You take a mental nap and you lose — it doesn’t matter who we play. That’s what I want to try to duplicate again and again and again.”

Seven-footer Kofi Cockburn hasn’t played in enough of Illinois’ games to be in the NCAA’s official rankings, but his 24.0 points per game would rank right behind Murray. The status of point guard Andre Curbelo, who has missed the last three games apparently due to post-concussion issues, has not changed.

–Field Level Media


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