Iowa hosts Illinois tonight


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Iowa head coach Todd Lickliter called his team flat. Freshman point guard Cully Payne simply said, “It wasn’t pretty.”

Indeed, it was startling to see an Iowa team — one that had stayed within 10 points of two of the conference’s best in Michigan State and Ohio State and had beaten Penn State and Indiana over a two-week stretch — lose, 60-46, against Michigan on Jan. 30.

“Why we would deviate? I don’t know,” Lickliter said

“Maybe we got a little overconfident,” Payne said.

The Hawkeyes (8-14, 2-7) have no more time to speculate. Illinois (14-8, 6-3) will come to Iowa City today for a 7:36 p.m. tip in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

The Fighting Illini easily handled Iowa, 59-42, in the teams’ first matchup on Jan. 5.

After losing three-consecutive conference games, Illinois head coach Bruce Weber’s team beat two of the Big Ten’s bottom dwellers, Penn State and Indiana, last week.

Now, the Illini come into Carver-Hawkeye Arena, where the 10th-place Hawkeyes are 7-7 on the year.

“Tough things need to make us better,” Lickliter said. “This group has been terrific about responding. I’ve been very proud of them. I expect them to respond.”

Over that five-game stretch before the 14-point defeat to Michigan, Iowa was responding well. Down as many as 19 points midway through the second-half against Michigan State, the Hawkeyes stormed back to give the Spartans a scare.

Similarly, Lickliter’s squad withstood an 11-point lead from Penn State to beat the Nittany Lions, 67-64, marking the team’s first conference win of the year.

Iowa showed no such fight against Michigan, leading Lickliter to speculate whether the team’s three-games-in-one-week schedule had something to do with its inept performance.

“I could see where an individual or a team could be flat,” he said. “I can’t accept that as a coach … but you can understand it.”

Facing a team with four scorers that average in double-figures, the Hawkeyes can’t afford to be flat again — especially with their second-leading scorer, sophomore Anthony Tucker, expected to remain on the bench.

In the teams’ first meeting, the Illini’s depth wore down Iowa. Weber’s squad, which didn’t play anyone more than 28 minutes, was up as much as 25 late in the second half despite shooting only 41 percent.

Freshman D.J. Richardson was Illinois’ only scorer in double-figures; Iowa freshman Eric May netted a team-high nine points.

“We didn’t shoot real well,” Payne said. “They’re a good team. I think D.J. got off a little bit, hit a couple of 3s. They’re pretty big and athletic. We’re going to have to defend a lot better than we did against Michigan.”

Sophomore Matt Gatens, who is still battling an ankle injury he suffered a week ago, could match up defensively with Richardson, and Payne may get the task of guarding junior Demetri McCamey, who leads the Illini in scoring at 15.1 points per game.

Seven-footer Mike Tisdale will also present a challenge for the Hawkeyes’ smaller frontline.

Iowa faced a similar inside-out duo against Michigan. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims combined to score 40 points against the Hawkeyes last week — something McCamey and Tisdale can’t do tonight if Lickliter’s squad hopes to upset Illinois.

“We probably took a step back, but just learn from it, watch tape, and go get them [today],” Gatens said.

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