Usually, two Iowa-Illinois basketball games in a single season is enough to keep hoop junkies in these parts talking over the water cooler at work for weeks.
These are anything but usual times for the Hawkeyes and Fighting Illini. The teams meet just once during the regular season — odd enough in itself as part of the rotation that exists in the Big Ten’s newfangled 18-game schedule.
But Saturday’s match-up is even more unique. For the first time in 30 years, both Iowa and Illinois will finish below .500 in the Big Ten in the same season. Clay Hargrave and a young Ronnie Lester were on the court for the Hawkeyes and Audie Matthews captained the Illini that season.
That tells you how long its been since an Iowa-Illinois match-up didn’t feature at least one team attempting to make something out of its season. Or is there something to play for in Saturday’s 5 p.m. game which will be played in front of the second sellout crowd of the season at Carver-Hawkeye Arena?
Illinois coach Bruce Weber believes the Illini (11-17, 3-12) have plenty left to play for in the game, echoing comments he made a week ago when five regular-season games remained on the schedule.
“I said last week I thought we could win all five games, but that we could lose all five,” Weber said. “I still feel the same way about these three. If we could get a few things to go our way, we could win all three and have a nice run into the Big Ten Tournament.”
Illinois hasn’t played since losing 49-43 at Michigan last Saturday, and Weber has split practice time this week. The first 30 minutes have focused on players who will return next season. The rest have been spent on game preparation and the week has included a couple of high-intensity workouts.
“I think they’ve had some life. We can’t just walk around and feel sorry for ourselves,” Weber said. “Let’s see what we can do Saturday, then we have two home games (with Michigan State and Minnesota). We have an opportunity. Let’s make the most of it.”
Iowa has the same ambition, although coach Todd Lickliter described Wednesday’s 65-64 loss at Penn State as ”one that hurts.”
The Hawkeyes will recognize their three senior players, one senior manager and a graduate assistant athletic trainer, prior to the start of Saturday’s game — a change from recent seasons.
“We need to send those guys out with a win,” Iowa freshman Jake Kelly said. “They’ve been a big help to all of us and we need to win the last one for them.”
Iowa, which has struggled offensively with many of the same issues Illinois has dealt with, continues to scramble for a seed for the Big Ten tourney and Lickliter continues to search for that elusive consistency.
“We have stretches where things have gone well, but we haven’t been able to sustain things. That’s been our biggest issue,” he said.