Iowa, Illinois among teams set to compete for Big Ten men’s basketball title

The rivalry between the Hawkeyes and the Illini was heated last season and, with key players returning for both schools, it will only be better this season.


Emily Wangen

Iowa guard Connor McCaffery drives past Illinois' Da'Monte Williams during a game on Sunday, March 8, 2020 at the State Farm Center in Champaign, Ill. The Hawkeyes lost to the Fighting Illini, 76-78.

Robert Read, Sports Editor

Before Luka Garza announced Sunday that he was returning to Iowa for his senior season, two other big announcements were made out of Champaign, Illinois.

Two of the best players in the Big Ten — the Illini’s Ayo Dosunmu and Kofi Cockburn — are also withdrawing their names from the NBA Draft.

“My mind was made up before them, but it was obviously great to see those guys come back,” Garza said on a video conference Sunday. “I think it’s going to be a lot of fun matching up against that team. They are very talented and having those two guys back is going to help them a lot. I’m really excited. The Big Ten is going to be really, really good this year. It’s going to be fun to be a part of.”

Dosunmu, a guard who averaged 16.6 points per game and shot 48.4 percent from the field for Illinois last season as a sophomore, announced July 31 that he was staying in Champaign for at least another season. Cockburn, a center that was named Big Ten Freshman of the Year last season, followed suit the next day.

The two games between the Hawkeyes and the Illini were very competitive last season.

Iowa defeated Illinois 72-65 at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in the first matchup between the team in the 2019-20 season Feb. 2. The Illini got revenge with a 78-76 victory in the last game of the regular season March 8. The contest at the State Farm Center ended with Cockburn swatting Garza’s last-second shot attempt.

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Words were exchanged in the handshake line following the Feb. 2 game. In the second matchup, Iowa’s Connor McCaffery and Illinois’ Da’Monte Williams got into it and both received technical fouls.

“It’s just we don’t like each other, simple as that,” Dosumnu said on March 8. “They want to kill us. We want to kill them. There’s no sweetie or nothing like that.”

Iowa and Illinois are both expected to be preseason top-10 teams ahead of the 2020-21 season. The Big Ten could go through Iowa City or Champaign.

The rivalry is set to heat up even more.

“I think it’ll be fun,” Connor McCaffery said. “Those games are always a grind, but the rest of the league as well. The league’s going to be good all around, as everybody knows. With [Dosunmu and Cockburn] returning, we beat them last year — could have beat them twice — and we’ve got everybody back.”

RELATED: Luka Garza returning for senior season at Iowa with championship goals in mind

Fran McCaffery said throughout last season that the Big Ten was as deep as it had been in his 10 years as Iowa’s head coach.

Going into year No. 11, he expects the conference to be even better.

“Oh, it’s definitely going to be tougher,” Fran McCaffery said. “… I wouldn’t be surprised to see 11 or 12 teams in [the NCAA Tournament].”

Along with Iowa and Illinois, Michigan State and Wisconsin have been mentioned as teams that will be among the top of the national preseason rankings. Rutgers, Penn State, and Michigan are some of the other teams that Fran McCaffery and Hawkeye players referred to as being a challenge this season.

Top to bottom, the Big Ten is going to be a grind. But that’s what the Hawkeyes always expect.

“I still think for us and [Illinois], it’s definitely going to be a good rivalry,” Connor McCaffery said. “That goes for the whole league… there are no easy games at any point. That’s what we signed up for and that’s what we’re excited for.”

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