Men’s hoops travels to Illinois on Saturday


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The Hawkeyes aren’t going to make the NCAA Tournament.

Barring a miracle run in the Big Ten Tournament, Iowa’s chances at the Big Dance are done this year, and they have been for some time.

The Hawkeyes’ (10-17, 3-12) next opponent, Illinois, however, still has hope. And now it becomes Iowa’s task to dent the Illini’s shaky tournament résumé.

At the start of conference play, Illinois held a 10-3 record and seemed like a lock for NCAAs, but the Illini (17-11, 7-8) have since gone downhill. However, if they can handle their last couple of games, particularly the Iowa and Indiana contests, and combine that with a decent Big Ten Tournament run, the Illini could be dancing in March.

The Hawkeyes know this, and they are using their opponent’s motivation as motivation for itself. If Illinois won’t back down, neither will the Hawkeyes.

Players know what’s on the line for the home team in Champaign. And while the Hawks haven’t explicitly spoken with one another about the idea of embracing its spoiler role, numerous players did say it was in some minds.

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“We haven’t talked about it as a team, but I’m sure a lot of us know that [playing in the NCAA Tournament is] on the table for them,” freshman guard Roy Devyn Marble said.

He noted that while some may take this to mean the Hawkeyes could surprise an Illinois team focused on the tournament, he thinks this means Saturday’s game will be more intense.

“That means they’re going to bring it even harder,” Marble said. “Knowing that losing could jeopardize their tournament chances.”

The Hawkeyes played well against the Illini in the teams’ first matchup this season, a 87-77 Illinois victory in both team’s Big Ten opener on Dec. 29. But historically, Iowa hasn’t played nearly so well in the unfriendly confines of Assembly Hall in Champaign, Ill.

In the last 21 contests at Illinois, Iowa has won just one, with the sole victory coming in the 1998-1999 season.

“It’s not good to hear that. I didn’t realize that,” junior guard Matt Gatens said when informed the team’s historical ineptitude at Illinois. “I didn’t realize it was that rare.”

But history is history for a reason. Come tip-off on Saturday, 20 out of 21 won’t have any effect on any free throw or inbounds pass.

Players themselves didn’t hesitate to dismiss that record as a stat of the past. Even the youth of the squad appeared unfazed by such a dire stretch.

“We can compete with anybody; that’s our mindset,” freshman forward Zach McCabe said.

Yet no matter how well Iowa plays, it can’t move very far up the standings before season’s end.

The highest Iowa can finish in the Big Ten regular season is 10th. With three games left to play, the Hawkeyes are tied with Indiana at the bottom of the league standings — although Iowa does hold the tiebreaker over the Hoosiers after sweeping them this season.

Players said they aren’t drawing motivation from a battle to finish 10th, though.

Instead, the Hawkeyes are motivated by the belief that they can beat any of the last three teams they play, and finishing 10th could be a consequence.

This isn’t an easy task, because after Illinois comes another bubble team in Michigan State, followed by Iowa’s Senior Day contest against No. 8 Purdue.

But don’t tell that to anyone on this Iowa basketball team.

“I firmly believe we can win these last three games with teams we’ve fought hard against,” Gatens said. “We beat Michigan State. You don’t want to finish last, you want to finish as high as you can.”

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