An Illinois/Minnesota hoops showdown in February doesn't scream "RIIIVAALLRYYY," but lest you forget, these teams have competed in some weighty games the past four years that carried serious implications for postseason play.
In honor of another February showdown tonight between these two teams (though lacking in any real substance and the impetus squarely on the Gophers to win), here's some quick recaps of the last four games dating back to 2010.
Feb. 27, 2010 - Minnesota at Illinois
Let's fire up the State Farm Time Machine and drop us into February 27, 2010. An Illinois squad that crumbled against bad Utah and Bradley teams in November had suddenly surged to a 10-5 conference record. It was a wholly necessary feat, too, because those bad early losses gave the team the slimmest of margins to make the NCAA Tournament that year. Ten conference wins was impressive, but it was widely believed that Illinois needed 11 to enter the tournament field.
The remaining games on the docket: home vs. Minnesota, at No. 6 Ohio State, and home vs. No. 15 Wisconsin. Those last two looked formidable, but Illini fans liked the odds of taking victory against the Gophers at home.
HA! What were we thinking? That Illinois was just going to pick up a nonchalant win over Minnesota? That an Illinois basketball team post-2006 was going to make life easy on itself?
In true Illini fashion, they played a real clunker of a game. Somehow, some way, Illinois shot 31 percent from the field, 25 percent on 36(!) field goal attempts, allowed Minnesota to shoot 40 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3-point range.......and only lost by two points.
But there it was, the one loss we couldn't lose. It was even more crippling back then, when losing to an unranked Big Ten team at home in the vaunted Assembly Hall was inconceivable. Since this game in 2010, Illinois has lost 16 games at home during conference play.
I remember walking out of this game and vividly thinking we had blown our chance at a tournament berth. Even after picking up a good win in the Big Ten Tournament against Wisconsin and losing in overtime to the Evan Turner Buckeyes team, Illinois were the first team shut out of the field of 65. The difference between the NCAAs and the NIT was the Gophers.
Feb. 10, 2011 - Illinois at Minnesota
This game's an easy one to recall. Not only did Orange Krush travel all the way up to Minneapolis for this one, but it also marked the game where Bruce Weber benched starters Mike Tisdale, Jereme Richmond, and Demetri McCamey in favor of Bill Cole, Meyers Leonard, and Brandon Paul.
I'm sure this delighted some of the "grass is greener" fans who constantly call for benching players, but this was concerning for a team that considered itself Sweet Sixteen worthy and was tipping dangerously near the bubble (Read this recap of the game and just feel the dysfunction emanating from the text. Ugh.).
But McCamey's pine ride motivated him, and he tossed up an efficient 17-point, 4-assist performance that gave the Illini a much-needed victory. It planted them firmly into the Tournament field and sent Minnesota awash for the rest of conference play.
This was my sole season as a Krush member, and I happened to be on this road trip. The team absolutely swelled with pride and smiles after the victory when Krush gathered down near the court as the players exited the locker room. Krush cheered each player as they came out and devoted an enormous ovation to McCamey. It was probably one of the last warm-hearted moments for Bruce and his staff until his firing.
Jan. 28, 2012 - Illinois at Minnesota
Speaking of dwindling warm-hearted moments, this game was a total gut punch. A tournament berth was still very much in play at this point in the season, and Bruce's seat, though warming, was not entirely aflame yet.
Illinois did not play well but found itself up three points in the closing seconds, needing only to not cede three points to escape the Barn with a crucial win. Alas, Austin Hollins went right at Meyers Leonard, hit the shot, drew enough contact to get a foul called on Leonard, Leonard fouled out, and Hollins hit the free throw to send it into overtime. Illinois lost by five points.
That's a sickening moment to relive in retrospect. It was a borderline call that probably didn't have to be whistled (Even Doug Gottlieb agreed!). Then again, Meyers was dumb to even contest the shot in the first place given the situation and should have stepped aside and let in an easy, meaningless two-point basket.
The other shoe fell after this heartbreaker as the Illini lost nine of their next 11 games. Bruce got canned. We didn't even sniff the CBI. Meyers went pro.
Upon reviewing the box score, another reason Illinois lost this game is patently obvious. Sam Maniscalco played 34 minutes, probably 20 too many. Good times, good times.
Feb. 10, 2013 - Illinois at Minnesota
I really took last season for granted. I wanted to say this was my second favorite game of the year, but then considered the Maui games, Gonzaga, Minnesota in the Big Ten Tournament, both NCAA Tournament games and couldn't decide.
This was a hugely important game as a litmus test of our real talent. Three days earlier, Illinois toppled No. 1 Indiana and suddenly had a different outlook on the season. But it would have been mostly for naught had Illinois lost to No. 18 Minnesota this game.
And as this post has shown, it was another fistfight with the Gophers. Griffey, replete with a new sheen of confidence after his buzzer-beater heard 'round the world, led all scorers with 16 points. But clinging to a one-point lead and the shot clock winding down, Illinois needed a basket to extend the lead. Tracy Abrams hit a badass step-back 3-pointer with 18 seconds to go in the game for a four-point lead and essentially sealing the victory.
Abrams Sinks a Final 3 Against Minnesota (via bigtennetwork)
How awesome, right?
For Wednesday night's game, Illinois has little at stake unless it decides to win every game currently left on the schedule. But Minnesota needs this win desperately to keep its NCAA Tournament hopes alive since losing to Illinois will be categorized as a "bad loss" come Selection Sunday.
It would be fun to play spoiler like they did to us back in 2010. But mostly I'm just hoping we avoid any debacles or blowouts. Let the rivalry continue!