IOWA CITY, Iowa – They hit the road three weeks ago with a six-game winning streak, a ton of confidence and a turnover problem.
They rolled back into town early this morning with a bad case of roadsickness, the worse record in the Big Ten and a turnover problem.
Happy new year, Illinois.
"It's been a long five games," guard Sergio McClain said after Iowa's 84-62 Thursday night thumping of Illinois. "We have potential.
"We just need to break out of this whatever-we're-in. We need to play some ball."
In a week of the weird around the conference, a favorite finally won one. No. 17 Iowa forced 22 turnovers, won the battle of the boards by 18 and got an 11-point, 11-rebound night from senior Jess Settles to snap its three-game losing skid against Illinois.
"We're searching in a lot of ways," Illinois coach Lon Kruger said.
Despite Cleotis Brown's 19 points and Arias Davis' 13, Illinois became the Big Ten's only 0-2 team, finished its rugged road trip with a 1-4 record and suffered its most lopsided loss of the Kruger era.
It was nearly the worse Illinois loss of the decade, only to be outdone by a 92-56 doozie in 1991 at Temple.
"Going on the road can be tough," Iowa coach Tom Davis said. "It gets away from you."
"Losses like this embarrass you," Illinois freshman Damir Krupalija said.
A national television audience watched it on ESPN and a revved-up crowd of 14,301 watched it inside a noisy Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
McClain, dragging something awful after battling the flu all week, never wants to see anything like it again. Never before on the receiving end of such a beating, he was one unhappy fella.
"Our pride wasn't there tonight," McClain said. "We gave up. We deserve to get our butt kicked like we did. You saw it. We gave them offensive rebounds. We weren't guarding anybody. They're taking wide-open shots. We turn it over, they get dunks.
"As a team, we gave up. Some players were fighting, but it wasn't there."
Kruger put it more mildly, saying, "Iowa just whipped us in every way."
The Illini (8-6, 0-2) got off to a stellar start, going up 14-4 before running into press problems.
"They came in with just so much confidence," Settles said. "You could almost feel it coming off of them. They didn't even feel like they were on the road."
They found out fast. The crowd started getting into it once Iowa slapped on a fullcourt press, and Illinois started playing hot potato. Fourteen of its turnovers came before halftime, the Illini falling behind 41-30.
They knew all along they were going to meet the press but never figured out a way to beat it.
"We've been working on it ever since the Indiana game," Brown said.
"I don't understand it," McClain said. "We work on things in practice the whole week. Then we get into the game and act like we're new to everything. Their press just killed us."
Illinois got within 46-39 on a McClain drive with 16:41 to go but never posed a serious threat.
Iowa bruiser Guy Rucker answered with a dunk. Then former News-Gazette All-Stater Joey Range nailed a three. Then Range came up with a steal and finished it off with a crowd-pleasing reverse layup.
And just like that, the lead was back to 14.
"We're kind of hanging in there – (down) 9, 10, 12 – and yet, we're just kind of hanging on," Kruger said.
Iowa (12-1, 3-0) took it from there, making the most of its 16 offensive rebounds and making 7 of 15 three-pointers.
And to think: These guys had big problems Sunday against Illinois' next opponent, Northwestern. The Wildcats fell 52-48, then bounced back Wednesday to upset Minnesota on the road.
"The best thing to do after a game like this is get back and play," Kruger said. "This is kind of a first-time occasion: getting whipped this badly."