Non-conference play ended in disappointing fashion for Illinois, which is looking to regroup from a pair of stunning losses as it begins the Big Ten season.
The No. 23 Illini visit Iowa on Wednesday night seeking their fifth straight win over the Hawkeyes.After a promising start, Illinois (10-3) has dropped 11 spots in the Top 25 after back-to-back losses the last two weeks. The Illini were upset 57-54 by Illinois-Chicago on Dec. 18 and fell 75-64 to then-No. 9 Missouri last Wednesday.Illinois posted its two lowest point totals of the season in those games, shooting a combined 36 percent. In the loss to the Tigers, the Illini allowed Missouri to score eight points in a nine-second span of the final minute, breaking open a tie game."We felt pretty good," forward Mike Davis said of non-conference play. "We could have won all the games. ... It's a learning experience. We have some young guys who are learning still and us seniors need to lead the way in the Big Ten conference because it's the last 18 games of our careers."For Illinois to get on a roll in conference play, it will need consistent work inside from Davis and center Mike Tisdale. Davis had 17 points and eight rebounds against Missouri after being held to four points versus Illinois-Chicago.Tisdale, averaging 10.2 points, was limited to a combined 11 in the last two games. However, he tied a career high with 13 rebounds against the Tigers."It's a new season," Tisdale said. "Coach (Bruce Weber) always breaks it down into two seasons, well this is the second one and we've got to start it out right."Iowa (7-5) didn't do that during its non-conference schedule, but it has won four of its last five.The Hawkeyes earned their second straight victory Dec. 21, 77-58 over Louisiana Tech. Matt Gatens scored 13 of his season-high 22 points in the second half, while Bryce Cartwright had 11 of his season-high 19 after the break."We are making strides," Gatens said. "We have to keep getting better in practice because we have a tough schedule coming up."Gatens, averaging a team-best 11.7 points, has helped key Iowa's recent surge after a slow start. He missed the first two games of the season after tearing a tendon in his non-shooting hand, but he's averaged 18.7 points and shot 51.5 percent in the last three games.The Hawkeyes have lost five of six league openers and face a brutal schedule to begin conference play this season. They host second-ranked Ohio State next Tuesday and visit No. 12 Purdue on Jan. 9.Illinois won in its last two visits to Carver-Hawkeye Arena, taking the most recent matchup there 57-49 on Feb. 3. The Illini's four consecutive victories in the series give them 14 wins in the last 18 meetings.