Much Still to Gain

Much Still to Gain

Both Illinois and Iowa have much to gain (or lose) as the two teams play tonight in Iowa City.

Illinois still has much to gain or lose with two regular season games remaining and the Big Ten Tournament seeding picture coming into focus.

Seeds six through nine are still in play for the Fighting Illini (21-9, 8-8), the winners of six of the last seven to place themselves in a four-team fight for the No. 6 seed.

Illinois' Tuesday opponent -- Iowa (18-11, 7-9), along with Minnesota and Purdue -- also is in the running. The Illini and Hawkeyes square off tonight at 6 p.m. in Iowa City, the contest marking the only regular season matchup between the two teams.

"They're playing for a lot right now, as we are," Illinois coach John Groce said. "I think that's a pretty neat thing here in March where you've got two teams that are competing and have aspirations of doing more with their season."

The Illini are facing a quick turnaround after an emotional victory against Nebraska on Senior Day Saturday.

For those playing in their last game in the Assembly Hall, the stage provided for big moments. Seniors D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey each hit big shots down the stretch to secure a 72-65 win. Groce said he was proud of the poise those leaders showed late in the game, but added that he was impressed with the contributions his underclassmen made.

Sophomores Tracy Abrams, Myke Henry and Nnanna Egwu "really played well collectively," according to Groce. "Watching the film I really thought they competed."

Illinois' balance of seniors making key plays and younger players settling into contributing roles is equalizing at the right time. Iowa has dropped two of it's last three, including a 13-point loss at Indiana Saturday.

But playing the Hawkeyes in Iowa City is a different story. Dating back to last Febraury, Iowa has won 19 of its last 22 games at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, including a 14-2 mark this season.

Oddly enough, Illinois has won three straight on the road versus Iowa, equaling it's longest streak ever in Iowa City. No matter what recent history suggests, Groce expects a stiff challenge.

"They're really deep. Defensively they mix it up, probably as much as any team we've played in Big Ten play," he said. "Offensively they push the ball. They're playing 10 guys, so it's going to be a great challenge for us and one we're looking forward to."

Iowa guard Roy Devyn Marble poses what Groce labeled as a potential "mismatch" for the Illini defense. The 6-6, 194-pound junior has led Iowa in scoring in six straight games and can play multiple positions on the floor. His 19-point average the last six games ranks as the fourth-best scoring average in the conference since Feb. 9.

"He can shoot it. He plays well in transition. He finishes. He has all the tricks, in terms of he's got a big game," Groce said. "He pivots well, he jabs well, he uses shot fakes, he's deceptive in a good way and just really knows how to play. He gets to the free throw line five times a game. I think he's really well rounded offensive player and due to his size and how big he is poses a matchup problem."

Notes…

Senior Sam McLaurin (sprained ankle) practiced Monday after receiving multiple treatments Sunday. … Groce called Henry's 12-point, nine rebound effort versus Nebraska "his most complete game," of the season. … Paul had five assists and only one turnover against the Cornhuskers. Groce commended him for being, "a more complete player," and for, "being locked in mentally." He needs five rebounds, three steals and one assist to join Mark Smith (1978-81) as only the second player in school history to reach 1,500 points, 500 rebounds, 300 assists and 150 steals. … Six of Iowa's eight Big Ten losses have come by margins of four points or fewer. Illinois, meanwhile, is 6-1 on the season in games decided by five points or less.

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