Home CBB Mullenix’s Musings: Iowa, Illinois and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge

Mullenix’s Musings: Iowa, Illinois and the Big Ten/ACC Challenge

by Josh Mullenix | @TheJMULL_

This week we missed out on possibly the best basketball game of the regular season. The Baylor and Gonzaga game was canceled minutes before tip off, but Villanova and Texas took center stage and delivered for all 40 minutes.

Kansas State lost to Fort Hays State, a Division II program without their head coach and highest ranking assistant, the Big Ten dominated the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and the Fighting Illini are going to be good even after Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn leave for the NBA. Let’s get to some of my thoughts, I mean musings, on the last seven days in the college basketball world. 

Iowa impressed me while UNC started to write the book on how to beat them.

Welcome back to college basketball prominence, Mr. Big Shot Bohannon. After missing most of the 2019-20 season following hip surgery, Bohannon returned to the court and was uninspiring in Iowa’s first three games. That certainly wasn’t the case on Tuesday against UNC. Bohannon scored 24 points and posted six assists on 8-of-17 shooting (7-of-16 from deep), leading the team in scoring in the 93-80 win over the Tar Heels.

The Hawkeyes proved they deserve all of the hype they have gotten in the preseason. Of course, Luka Garza has solidified himself as frontrunner for National Player of the Year but he’s only a part of this offense that is so fun to watch. Bohannon, CJ Fredrick and Joe Wieskamp combined for 64 points on 23 field goals and were responsible for all 17 of Iowa’s threes in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Early on, UNC wasn’t able to disrupt the Hawkeyes’ offensive sets at all and it translated into a 12-point halftime advantage. The ball movement was spectacular and things just looked easy for Iowa on offense.

However, Roy Williams and the Tar Heels were also getting a grasp on how to beat the Hawkeyes. Iowa definitely has holes and UNC shined a terribly bright spotlight on them on Tuesday night, specifically early in the second half. By the under 16 media timeout of the second half, UNC had cut a halftime deficit of a dozen to just three points. They did it doing two things: pound it inside and go, go, go the entire second half. The Tar Heels had 24 points in the paint in the second half and finished with 42 total. Williams told his freshman point guard Caleb Love to push the tempo in the second half and the Tar Heels finished with 24 fast break points (to Iowa’s six).

The question for the Hawkeyes was never about their offense, that was always going to be very hard to stop. But can the Hawkeyes play good enough defense against the most gifted offensive teams in the sport that they’ll have to beat to win the Big Ten and get to the Final Four? That hasn’t completely been answered yet, but I wasn’t thrilled with their transition defense in the slightest. 

With that being said, I was impressed by Iowa’s ability to take a shot in the mouth from UNC and still control the game late in the second half. The game was tied at 65 with 9:52 remaining. The Hawkeyes were up 83-70 with 6:34 left and didn’t let the Tar Heels get much closer than that, scoring 28 points in the final 9:52 to win by 13. Iowa deserves the recognition as a top five team, but I’m pretty sure everyone now has the blueprint to beating the Hawkeyes. But that’s easier said than done.

Illinois is going to be good for a lot longer than just this season.

There are many things to take away from Illinois’ controlling, convincing 83-68 victory over the Duke Blue Devils. Coach K’s feelings have gone from “the NCAA can’t go another year without an NCAA Tournament” to being unsure about playing a season during a pandemic. I’m sure that has nothing to do with Duke’s two losses in Cameron Indoor Stadium already this season and the uninspiring nature of his team’s performances. Duke’s freshman class isn’t very good right now, Cockburn and Dosunmu led the way for the Illini and Illinois can actually shoot the ball this season. All of those are admirable takeaways, but I left Tuesday night with one major takeaway: Brad Underwood and the Illini are not one-hit wonders. They’re going to be around for a while.

Allow me to explain. The Illini have a pair of freshmen. A pair of good freshmen in Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo. Both players were four stars, according to 247 Sports, in the top 45 of the 2020 class. They are impact freshmen, but right now they are in that sweet spot of being high-level freshmen but not really guys that you expect to enter their names into the 2021 NBA Draft. Right now, Miller, in particular, represents the vastly improved 3-point shooting personnel for the Illini and Curbelo is a very respectable backup point guard to Trent Frazier. 

Miller was 3-of-3 from the 3-point line in 29 minutes and also added a pair of steals. He is already one of the better defenders on Illinois’ team. Curbelo was 5-of-9 from the floor for 12 points and put pressure on Duke’s young guards all night (despite some turnover issues). They look comfortable on the floor against some of the best teams in the country. Miller is a 3-and-D guy right now and Curbelo provides point guard depth (which is one of the most important accolades of a roster in college hoops, my opinion). They’ve both been impactful thus far and take some of the pressure off Dosunmu and Cockburn to perform all the time. 

These two freshmen represent the future of this program. The Illini have been elite before all the way back in 2004-05 when Deron Williams and Dee Brown led Illinois to the national championship game (where they lost to UNC). However, after that season they returned to mediocrity. They won 26 games the next season, but lost in the second round of the NCAA Tournament and have had 14 double-digit loss seasons since then, including four seasons under .500. Brad Underwood might have the Illini turning a corner in that sense and turning them into a more consistent contender in the Big Ten. Will they be elite after Dosunmu and Cockburn leave? No, probably not, but if Miller and Curbelo are still around we aren’t going to be wondering what happened to Illinois.

Underwood isn’t to a point where Illinois will be in the Final Four conversation year in and year out, but he might not be far away from having Illinois in the conversation to be one of the best three teams in the Big Ten on a yearly basis. 

The Big Ten is the best conference in the country, and it’s not particularly close. And other ACC/Big Ten Challenge observations. 

The early season “best conference” conversation revolved around the Big Ten and the Big 12. At the top of the Big Ten, Iowa, Michigan State and Illinois are all in the top six of this week’s AP top 25 and the Big 12 claims two of the other three teams in the top six. Baylor and Kansas are  followed by Texas, West Virginia and Texas Tech in the top 16 of the AP poll. As nonconference play comes to a close it’s clear the Big Ten’s depth accompanied by its elite talent at the top is just too much to consider it anything other than the best conference in the country. 

We’ve already talked about Iowa and Illinois. Both teams proved their worth with Iowa beating UNC and Illinois dominating Duke, but it was the depth on display during the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The conference dominated the ACC 6-1 on the first night. The ACC saved face on night two, winning some games between teams at the bottom of each conference but it’s clear which conference is superior. 

After Iowa and Illinois, Penn State dominated a Virginia Tech team that got a lot of hype after beating Villanova. Ohio State took care of Notre Dame behind EJ Liddell’s 19 points and 12 rebounds. Rutgers beat Syracuse and Minnesota beat Boston College. There are so many quality basketball teams in the Big Ten this season and they proved it against the ACC almost from top to bottom.

Florida State got their first good win of the season against the Indiana Hoosiers in overtime despite 25 points and 17 rebounds from Trayce Jackson-Davis. Once again Leonard Hamilton is putting athletic, long, hard-working players on the floor. They’ll be tough to beat like they are every season. Scottie Barnes is one of the more intriguing freshmen to watch in the country. He probably will never put up stats that explode off the page, but he’s going to be a good pro and a lot of fun to watch under Hamilton. 

Clemson’s defense is one of the best in the country and the main reason the Tigers are off to a 4-0 start. They are seventh in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom, only giving up more than 51 points on one occasion through four contests. They are fifth in the country in turnover percentage and top 20 in effective field goal percentage. The Tigers handled Maryland, forcing 15 turnovers and jumping out to a 38-15 lead in the first half. Aamir Sims led the way on both ends of the floor with 16 points, seven rebounds and two steals. On top of their defense, three of their four wins have come against Power 5 opponents. The Tigers are already putting together the beginning of a resume that could get them back to the NCAA Tournament.

Photo by: Marc-Gregor Campredon / Wikimedia Commons

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