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Illinois (17-14) vs. Iowa (16-15)



The Sports Network

DATE & TIME: Thursday, March 8, 11:30 a.m. (ET)

FACTS & STATS: Site: Bankers Life Fieldhouse (18,345) -- Indianapolis, Indiana. Television: Big Ten Network. Home Record: Illinois 13-4, Iowa 13-6. Away Record: Illinois 2-8, Iowa 3-8. Neutral Record: Illinois 2-2, Iowa 0-1. Conference Record: Illinois 6-12, Iowa 8-10. Series Record: Illinois leads, 81-66.

GAME NOTES: The ninth-seeded Illinois Fighting Illini begin the last shot of salvaging their season as they square off with the eighth-seeded Iowa Hawkeyes in the opening round of the 2012 Big Ten Conference Tournament.

The winner of this first round bout will advance to play the top-seeded Michigan State Spartans in the quarterfinal round on Friday.

Illinois was victorious in its only meeting with Iowa this season, as it picked up a 65-54 decision at Assembly Hall on Feb. 26 to extend its all-time series lead to 81-66 over the Hawkeyes. Iowa had a poor offensive outing in the contest as it managed to make only 36.7 percent of its field goals.

Coach Bruce Weber has had a very tough year leading the Fighting Illini (17-14) this season. Illinois lost 11 of its last 13 games to plummet to an eighth place tie with Minnesota in the Big Ten standings. Not only has Illinois losing games, it was being embarrassed. The Fighting Illini have been outscored by an average of 18.5 ppg in their last four losses. They were held under 40 percent shooting in all four of those contests.

Iowa (16-15) picked up some steam near the end of the season as it picked up victories over the nationally ranked Indiana Hoosiers and Wisconsin Badgers in back-to-back outings. Coach Fran McCaffrey's squad then suffered setbacks in two of its last three, which includes its loss to Illinois, to finish 8-10 in Big Ten action. The Hawkeyes blew a 15-point lead in their regular season ending loss to Northwestern on Saturday. Iowa will need to limit its turnovers in the Big Ten Tournament if it hopes to make a run, as its 18 miscues against NU on Saturday led to its downfall.

Illinois rode its 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard to victory in its first bout with Iowa. Leonard dominated inside as he posted 22 points and grabbed 14 rebounds versus the Hawkeyes. Brandon Paul led the team in with averages of 15.0 points and 1.5 steals per game this season. After an ugly two-game slump in which he went 3-of-16 from the field to average 7.0 ppg in two games, the junior guard finished the season strong with a 22-point outing against the Wisconsin's nation leading defense. D.J. Richardson adds a third scoring dynamic for Illinois, which gives them all the tools to be one of the top teams in the league. The obviously capable and talented trio paired up with average results has been the main cause of Weber's job being in jeopardy as the season's end approaches.

Iowa does not have a big man on its roster that can slow down Leonard. However, the Fighting Illini, like the rest of the conference, do not have anyone who can stop Hawkeyes' guard Matt Gatens. The senior scoring guard finished the season by with an average of 23.2 ppg in the span of his last six games. Gatens was the key to Iowa's success in its consecutive wins over ranked foes, as he knocked down 7-of-10 from three-point range in both win over Indiana and then once again versus Wisconsin four days later. Aaron White and Roy Devyn Marble will need to contribute their steady contributions to assist Gatens's efforts to lead Iowa past Illinois.

Illinois' disappointing season would be acceptable at most programs in the nation. Weber led his team to a winning record, victories over ranked and NCAA Tournament bound opponents, and a possible No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance. While Illinois is without a doubt a much better team than their record indicates, Iowa seems to be riding a wave of confidence that could knock over the underachieving Fighting Illini once and for all. Despite Iowa's strong recent play, Leonard should be able to put the team on his back for at least one game in the postseason.

Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Illinois 68, Iowa 61

03/08 10:31:55 ET