Illinois Missouri Basketball

Illinois head coach Brad Underwood is hoping his team can find the confidence and swagger necessary to win in the Big Ten.

AP

There have been plenty of Iowa-Illinois basketball games through the decades that carried loads of meaning. The two border rivals often have battled for position near the top of the Big Ten standings.

The game they will play against one another tonight will be something new.

This time they’re fighting just to stay out of the bottom.

The Hawkeyes and Illini are the only two teams that have yet to win a Big Ten game, but one of them is going to do that today when they meet at 7 p.m. in the State Farm Center in Champaign.

Iowa coach Fran McCaffery generally has liked the way his team has played most of the time in five Big Ten defeats.

"There just seems to be a segment in every game where we struggle …," he said. "For 30 minutes, 32 minutes of the game, we’re playing pretty well. So what we have to be able to do is play better for 40 minutes consistently at both ends."

Illinois coach Brad Underwood feels pretty much the same way about his team.

"I have no idea what it is for them, but for us in conference play we’ve had opportunities in each of our four games," Underwood said Wednesday. "They’ve had opportunities as well. We’re both looking for consistency."

Although Illinois also is winless, McCaffery said he hasn’t noticed the same level of inconsistency in the tape he has watched of the Illini.

"I haven’t seen them not be connected defensively," he said. "I would have to say that legitimately about them. They really battle you and make you beat them. I always have respect for teams that do that."

He referred to the Illini (10-7 overall, 0-4 Big Ten) as a "very physical team, active defensively, deep club."

"He’s played a lot of guys, a lot of guys are producing," McCaffery added. "Very athletic team with tremendous power. I think they run good stuff, they get up in your space, and you’ve got to execute offensively to beat that team."

Naturally, Underwood also is saying complimentary things about the Hawkeyes.

“Iowa’s good,” he said. “They throw a lot of different defenses at you. They have tremendous size and length. I think Tyler Cook is one of the best players in our league, outstanding.”

For the Hawkeyes (9-9, 0-5 Big Ten), a key could be their ability to take care of the ball. They have had sporadic turnover problems, handing the ball over more often than the opposing team in 13 of 18 games. They’re 4-9 in those games.

Illinois is second in the Big Ten in steals and sixth in the country in forced turnovers at 18.7 per game.

The other big problem for Iowa has been defense. In its three games since the resumption of Big Ten play last week, Iowa's opponents have shot 53 percent from the field.

"There are so many things that enter into good defense," McCaffery said. "It comes down to a competitive instinct that’s required by all five people. …

"There’s obviously a number of different areas where you can break down. At the end of the day, if you do play with incredible heart, determination and desire, you can overcome mistakes in those other areas just by your activity level."

The place where the Hawkeyes figure to have an advantage tonight is under the basket. Their post players, led by Cook, have dominated in some games, and that isn’t one of Illinois’ strongest areas.

Underwood, in his first season as the Illinois coach, is just concerned about getting his team healthy — almost every player on the roster has had the flu over the past week — and getting his players to understand what it takes to win in the Big Ten.

"Our locker room has a bunch of guys who want to win," he said. "I just don’t know yet if we expect to win. Expectation is swagger and confidence, and maybe both are lacking.

"In conference play, no matter what league or what level, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You have to go take it."

Mark Tupper of the Decatur Herald & Review contributed to this report.

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