IOWA CITY — When the Illinois basketball team thoroughly thrashed Minnesota on Wednesday night, it raised eyebrows around the Big Ten if not across the entire country.
Many observers thought to themselves “Wow. I didn’t see that coming.”
“You could see it coming,” the Iowa coach said Friday. “Yeah, their record was sub-.500, but they were in every game, they battled every game, and you knew they were going to put it all together at some point.
“It’s one of those things you always hope it’s not against you. The other night, that was really impressive because Minnesota is really a good team, a very good team. They have really good players, and to beat them by 30 says a lot about where Illinois is right now.”
Actually, the Illini only won the game by 27, 95-68. But they were up by 23 at halftime and by 34 fairly early in the second half.
They now become McCaffery’s concern as they come to Iowa City on Sunday for the only scheduled meeting between the two teams this season.
The 23rd-ranked Hawkeyes (15-3, 4-3 Big Ten) have won four straight games and nine of their last 10, but Illinois (5-12, 1-5 Big Ten) presents a unique challenge.
The Illini are extremely guard-oriented with freshman Ayo Dosunmu and sophomore Trent Frazier providing a large chunk of their points. And they’re among the most hyper-aggressive teams in the country from a defensive standpoint.
“They play a little bit differently defensively,” McCaffery admitted. “They’re in denial. They deny. Nothing easy. And they challenge you at the rim.
“But offensively, they’re going to go. They’re going to come at you. They run really good stuff, a variety of options from it. They have the ability to throw it inside and score. They have the ability to take you off the dribble, they can make threes, battle you on the glass. There’s a lot of ways they can hurt you.
“The one thing that sticks out is if you watch them play, they’re going to compete. They’ve established that.”
One other thing about the Illini: They’re very young. They have only one player on the roster who ever has played in Carver-Hawkeye Arena. Junior Kipper Nichols played 10 minutes in a 2017 Illini victory there.
There has been almost a complete changeover in the roster since then. Even the coach, Brad Underwood, is new since then.
“They have a lot of new players,” McCaffery said. “They have a lot of freshmen, they’ve got some new guys. But if you watch them play, they battle.”
McCaffery wouldn’t say for sure, but he made it sound as though junior forward Tyler Cook could return to the lineup for Sunday’s game. Cook, the Hawkeyes’ top scorer and rebounder, missed a game at Northwestern last week because of a sore knee, then sat out Wednesday’s win at Penn State with a sprained ankle.
McCaffery said Cook worked out on his own Thursday and felt good. The plan was to ease him into practice Friday.
He admitted Cook was close to being ready to go Wednesday.
“He didn’t have the explosion,” McCaffery said. “If you’re not able to go make the plays that you want to make, it’s hard to make that decision to go. And the last thing he wanted, the last thing we wanted, is for him to have a setback.”