MEN'S COLLEGE BASKETBALL: Classic matchup of offense against defense

Mar. 28—BOSTON — What wins basketball games — offense or defense?

The answer to that question will most likely determine if the Illinois Fighting Illini or the Iowa State Cyclones advance into Saturday's East Regional final at TD Garden in Boston.

The third-seeded Fighting Illini (28-8) feature the No. 1 offensive efficiency (126.8) in the country, while the second-seeded Cyclones (29-7) have the No. 1 defensive efficiency (87.5), both rankings courtesy of KenPom.

"I think the biggest thing is keeping it simple ... not trying to hit home runs," said Illinois senior Coleman Hawkins about the matchup of offense against defense, "making the extra pass, and then being what we talk about ball-tough is a big key. Because live ball turnovers for them lead to buckets. They score a lot off of those turnovers."

Iowa State forces its opponents into 17.3 turnovers a game, while Illinois has averaged just 10.6 turnovers a contest this season.

"I'm not oblivious to think that we won't turn the ball over a few times," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "You've got to be very decisive in your decisions. You've got to be ball-tough. They have two guys in their guards (Tamin Lipsey and Keshon Gilbert) that do a great job of raking, taking it out of your hands. They're in constant rotation. You can't do that same thing every time. They'll sit on it after a time or two.

"You've got to try to avoid the pick-6's. Take the 5-second count if you're in trouble, punt it 24 rows up into the stands — just don't jump up in the air and throw it, letting them get an uncontested layup that we can't defend on our end."

The challenge is just as daunting for Lipsey (6-foot-1) and Gilbert (6-foot-4).

They will need to find a way to matchup up will Illinois guards Ty Rodgers (6-6), Terrence Shannon Jr. (6-6) and Marcus Domask (6-6).

"I would say sticking true to what we have done all season and what we do is be physical and dictate, go out there with physicality and just do what we do," said Lipsey.

Gilbert added, "do the same thing we've been working on since June, dictating, being physical."

As Illinois prepared for tonight's game with Iowa State, a guy who hasn't dressed for a game all year became a very important piece to the puzzle for the Illini.

Sophomore Sencire Harris, who is redshirting this season, was and is still known for an incredible defensive ability. He along with freshman Dra Gibbs-Lawhorn have been a big part of the scout team for the Fighting Illini this week.

"You can't replicate truly their athleticism with all those guys up front are so athletic and quick," said Underwood taking about the Iowa State front court of Tre King, Robert Jones and Milan Momcilovic. "But you talk about doing certain things and creating certain habits and being ball-tough, but we've got to apply all those things tomorrow.

"With Dra and Sencire, we can get after the ball pretty good in practice, but it is different when you have size and length like that up front coming."

That's also true when Iowa State talks about trying to defend Shannon, who is averaging 31.6 points per game in five postseason victories for Illinois.

In his last game, Shannon became just the third player in Illinois history to score 30 points in a NCAA Tournament game, joining Frank Williams and Deron Williams.

"He has done a great job of just being a dominant player," Hawkins said. "I felt like a lot of times it gets tough in the postseason because everybody knows your actions, but we've been keeping everything pretty simple. He's done a great job of being a reliable source to go out and score at any given moment, where a play breaks down or not.

"Seeing his speed, his physicality dominate matchups. It's been really great to see, for sure."

If the battle between offense and defense is a wash, tonight's game could come down to rebounding and that's where Illinois enjoys a slight advantage.

The Fighting Illini have enjoyed an 8.3 rebounding advantage over their opponents this season, while Iowa State's rebounding edge is just 0.9 and in the postseason, the Cyclones have been a negative-3.2.

"Rebounding is a big emphasis that (Underwood) has had since the summer," said Domask.

And the guy that Illinois needs the most on the boards is Shannon.

"When he defensive rebounds, our offense is way better," said Illinois senior Quincy Guerrier. "We run in transition. We push the ball. We are going to need him to defensive rebound because they're a really good team.

"All of the guards are going to have to come help us and get rebounds."

Tonight's regional semifinal contest is being played at TDGarden in Boston. It's the first time that Illinois has played an NCAA Tournament game in Boston and the basketball history surrounding the town has been lost on Underwood.

"All you have to do is look up at the rafters," said Underwood referring to 17 NBA Championship banners for the Boston Celtics along with all retired numbers for players like Larry Bird, Bill Russell and John Havlicek. "It's an iconic building and place."

Tonight's game is schedule to tipoff at 9:07 p.m. or basically 25 minutes after the conclusion of the semifinal game between Connecticut and San Diego State. The game can be seen on both TBS and TruTV stations, while it can also be heard on the Illini Sports Network, including Danville stations WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.