Perhaps the best part of playing the number five team in the nation is the lowered burden of expectation. When Iowa strolled into State Farm Center on Sunday, it is doubtful any fans had high hopes of an upset victory. Sure, upsetting Purdue earlier this year was a very fun thing to see, but the Hawkeyes have been something even better this year, so the final 77-65 scoreline favoring the visitors was not huge disappointment.
Rather, in losing by a not embarrassingly wide margin, there were aspects of Illinois (11-13, 3-8) to enjoy. For one, and this bears repeating, it was not a blowout. Against Penn State, who sit just above the Illini in the Big Ten standings, Iowa completely dominated, winning 73-49 just five days ago. For Illinois, to be 12 points off the pace of the top team in the KenPom rankings is really not that bad. Much better than its performance against Indiana earlier this season.
Another positive, Michael Finke played 17 minutes. His knee was wrapped pretty heavily and he didn’t start, but just getting another person besides Maverick Morgan to play in the post was vital. Another positive to go with that, is that Morgan’s 10 points and 7 rebounds were not completely terrible, which is also kind of a win given his previous efforts.
Malcolm Hill continued to do what he does, which is score in double figures (14 points), but he wasn’t alone and it wasn’t Kendrick Nunn that had to be his top deputy. Instead, Jalen Coleman-Lands continued his solid play after the Rutgers game and notched 17 points, 15 from threes. His continuing development as a scoring threat is a tremendous benefit to a team that has at times looked more than a little offensively challenged.
Likewise, the development of D.J. Williams continued in a positive fashion. The freshman scored a career high of 8 points in 15 minutes on the court, and for brief period in the second half looked like one of the most dominant players on the floor. Injury elsewhere has put him on an accelerated development schedule, and its nice to see his floor time finally paying off, even if the real return from Williams may not be seen until his sophomore or junior seasons.
Yes, Illinois lost, but in a season that has been populated by more losses than wins, it’s almost refreshing to look at this one without disappointment. Fans may still be up in arms about this level of losing being unacceptable at Illinois, but at this point they may as well start looking for the good in these games.
Photos courtesy of Tyler Courtney.