Behind Gatens and young roster, Hawkeyes showing signs of life.
It's not as easy as it seems. In 1999, Iowa chose not to renew the contract of coach Tom Davis despite his tenure that included nine NCAA Tournament appearances in 13 seasons, including three finishes in the second round, two losses in the Sweet 16 and one trip to the Elite Eight. Steve Alford arrived after leading Southwest Missouri State to the Sweet 16, but the former Indiana guard couldn't make any real headway. Iowa twice won Big Ten Tournament titles, but Iowa won only one NCAA Tournament game under Alford. He left for New Mexico beforfe his time ran out in Iowa. After Todd Lickliter won 38 games in three years as Iowa coach, Fran McCaffery finally has the Hawkeyes headed in the right direction, thanks to senior guard Matt Gatens. Gatens became the first Big Ten player to score 30 points or more in consecutive games in 15 seasons in wins over Indiana and Wisconsin last week, and Iowa rolls into the game at Illinois Sunday with some momentum, not to mention hope for the future. "It just goes to show you what they're capable of doing,'' McCaffery said. "Who knows where we're headed right now.'' Meanwhile, Illini coach Bruce Weber is the one riding the hot seat after the Illini lost their last six games and nine of 10. If the Illini want to salvage anything, it has to start against the Hawkeyes and continue through the Big Ten Tournament. With four wins against top 25 teams, Iowa no longer is an easy target. Iowa already won seven Big Ten games and hopes for a postseason berth. Although Gatens is a senior, McCaffery can look to the future with developing sophomore point guard Roy Devyn Marble, sophomore forwards Melsahn Basabe and Zach McCabe plus unheralded freshman big man Aaron White. With the recent resurgence, it's easier to forget double-digit losses to Iowa State, Northern Iowa, Creighton and Campbell in an uneventful non-conference season. "It's always tough to watch when you're rebuilding,'' said Kevin Gamble, the former Springfield Lanphier star who played at Iowa before an 11-year NBA career. " When Dr. Tom went out, it wasn't a pretty sight. "Alford did a decent job, then they fell off again. Lickliter was a great coach at the mid-major level. He really couldn't get the talent to compete in the Big Ten. Fran did an excellent job at the mid-major level. He's been around. Even though he's a Philly guy, he's coached in the Midwest. It takes time to dig out of that hole once you fall in the hole.'' But the big gun has been Gatens, who made 12 consecutive 3-point attempts in a span that began while scoring 30 against Indiana last Sunday and ended during Gatens' 33-point game against Wisconsin Thursday. He was 7 of 10 from the 3-point line in each game. "Matt is making a name for himself to be considered to be drafted, certainly making a push for all league,'' McCaffery said. "I'd like to think now he's going to start to get the kind of accolades he deserves. "Because of him the team is doing better. They're going to start talking about us more, and it's going to be because of him.'' Marble had 11 points and eight assists against Wisconsin while White had 12 points and six assists. Iowa swept Wisconsin for the first time since 1995. When thousands of students took advantage of free tickets, they swarmed the court in a perfect storm for the Hawkeyes. On Gatens bobblehead night, Iowa basketball was fun again. "Hopefully, we can continue to play this way, both ends of the floor,'' Gatens said. "This young team is figuring it out at a good time.'' After back-to-back road losses to Northwestern and Penn State, Iowa rebounded at home. "They got energized by Gatens' shooting and their crowd support,'' Weber said. "That's the biggest thing for our guys. Come with energy, some emotion. We've got to get something going. It's got to start on the defensive end.'' The Illini rank last in the Big Ten in 3-point shooting defense (40.2 percent), not a good sign with Iowa and Gatens coming to town. John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. Follow him on Twitter @JohnSupinie. Illinois (16-12, 5-10) vs. Iowa (15-13, 7-8) 5 p.m., Assembly Hall, Champaign (BTN, Illini Sports Network) ILLINOIS (16-12, 5-10) ppg rpg F Tyler Griffey 6-8 Jr. 5.1 3.3 C Meyers Leonard 7-1 So. 13.1 7.9 G Brandon Paul 6-4 Jr. 14.7 4.7 G D.J. Richardson 6-3 Jr. 12.1 3.1 G Tracy Abrams 6-1 Fr. 4.1 2.3 IOWA (15-13, 7-8) ppg rpg F Aaron White 6-8 Fr. 10.4 5.6 F Zach McCabe 6-7 So. 7.6 4.3 G Roy Devyn Marble 6-6 So. 11.1 4.0 G Matt Gatens 6-5 Sr. 15.2 3.8 G Josh Ogelsby 6-5 Fr. 6.1 1.5 Noteworthy: The Illini have won eight of the last nine against Iowa, including six straight. Iowa's last victory over Illinois came in 2007. In Assembly Hall, the Illini have won 10 straight over Iowa and 21 of the last 22 meetings. Iowa's last win at Assembly Hall in a 78-72 victory in 1999. . . Illinois' six-game losing streak is the longest since a seven-game slide in Big Ten play in 1999, when the Illini finished 3-13. . . Richardson became the 45th player in Illini history to surpass 1,000 career points. He enters the weekend with 1,001 points. Paul needs two points to reach 1,000. . . Gatens' 33 points against Wisconsin rank second by a Big Ten player in a single game this season behind the 43 scored by Paul. Key for Illini: Somebody has to cover Gatens. Key for Hawkeyes: Bring the confidence gained in two wins over top 25 teams at home. Key quote: "We're catching them when they're hot as ever. When you have one guy like Gatens, they jumped on his back.'' -- Illini coach Bruce Weber. Prediction: Illinois 71, Iowa 65