INDIANAPOLIS — One player literally stood head — and partially shoulders — above everyone on the court the last time Iowa and Illinois met on the basketball court.
Illinois center Meyers Leonard, who stands 7-foot-1, scored 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds in a 65-54 win against the Hawkeyes on Feb. 26. Leonard immediately made an impact with a pair of blocked shots and affected Iowa’s transition game because of it.
Leonard, a sophomore, is the primary focus for Iowa as the eighth-seeded Hawkeyes prepare to face the ninth-seeded Fighting Illini in the Big Ten Tournament opener at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Leonard averaged 13.4 points, 8.3 rebounds and a Big Ten-high 1.9 blocked shots per game this year.
“Well, you know, you have to decide, ‘OK, we’re going to play him straight up, are we going to go get him?’” Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery said. “Are we going to double from the opposite post or double from the top, double on the catch, double on the bounce? I mean just change defenses on them and play up? I mean, there are so many different ways. You work on that more than you work on who the guy is.”
It’s likely McCaffery will use several of his post players against Leonard, such as 6-foot-9 senior centers Andrew Brommer and Devon Archie, or power forwards Melsahn Basabe, Zach McCabe, Aaron White or Darius Stokes. McCaffery will mix zones with man defense in an effort to contain Leonard.
“Just try to keep them guessing of what we’re doing,” McCaffery said.
But as solid as Leonard was against Iowa in the teams’ first meeting, it was Iowa’s lack of execution on offense that was the primary reason for defeat. In the first half Iowa hit just 8-of-27 shots, and five field goals were from Matt Gatens. After Iowa took a 5-0 lead, Illinois went on a 13-0 run. The Hawkeyes trailed 34-23 at halftime.
“We didn’t finish our fast breaks,” Gatens said. “We were running, we just weren’t getting anything out of it, especially early. We were up 5-0 but we could have been up 10-2 or (10-4). Instead we let them go on a run.”
Devyn Marble struggled early against the Illini, shooting just 1-for-6 in the first half. He rebounded to sink all three shots in the second half.
“We’ve got to find a way to score better offensively than we did the first time,” Marble said. “If they give me those same shots, I’m going to take them again and hopefully knock them this time.”
Illinois leads Iowa 81-66 in the schools’ 104-year-old series. After the 1999 season, Illinois led Iowa just 64-62 but the Illini have won 17 of the last 21.
This is the first meeting between the schools in the Big Ten Tournament. Illinois was the only Big Ten team (other than Nebraska) that Iowa had not played in the Big Ten Tournament.
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