The Illinois Fighting Illini (13-7, 3-4) are coming off a great home victory over Purdue this past Thursday, but they'll need to keep winning in order to keep their tournament hopes alive. The team will be in Minneapolis on Saturday to take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers (12-8, 1-6). Illinois will still be without starting guards Rayvonte Rice (left hand) and Aaron Cosby (eye), so look for John Groce to manipulate the lineup in a similar fashion to last game with Leron Black getting the starting nod at forward.
The Illini made national news on Friday when they promoted team manager Ryan Schmidt to the active roster. The 6'0 Illinois native most likely won't see any playing time, but it's a great story nonetheless and he provides a bit of depth for a backcourt that desperately needs it.
Don't let the Gophers' record fool you; they're a very good team that's been extremely unlucky. According to KenPom's "luck statistic", Minnesota is 349/355 teams--that's dreadful. This particular metric is obviously an inexact science, but several of the team's losses could have easily gone the other way. Minnesota scores a lot, plays tough defense, and they'll look to push the tempo.
Minnesota is very balanced on the offensive end as six different players are averaging at least 8.9 points per game. However, senior guard Andre Hollins needs to be a priority on the defensive end; he leads the way scoring-wise for the Gophers at 13.8 points per game and he's shooting an impressive 41.8% from behind the three point arch.
Minnesota leads the all-time series between the two schools 45-44, but the Illini have won 11 out of the last 13 games played at Williams Arena. This includes last year's only meeting when Kendrick Nunn's 19 points powered Illinois to a 62-49 victory.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Jaylon Tate | SO
- Kendrick Nunn | SO
- Malcolm Hill | SO
- Leron Black | FR
- Nnanna Egwu | SR
Minnesota Golden Gophers:
- Deandre Mathieu | SR
- Andre Hollins | SR
- Carlos Morris | JR
- Joey King | JR
- Maurice Walker | SR
Keys to the Game:
1. Can the evolution of Black and Nunn continue?
The progression of Kendrick Nunn and Leron Black has been a pleasure to watch. Nunn is obviously coming off a Big Ten All-Freshman Team appearance in his first season, but there have been some drastic improvements in his game. He's always been a deadeye spot-up shooter for Illinois, but Nunn has looked great driving to hoop and, perhaps more importantly, he's making plays to get his teammates open now. His passing ability is vastly underrated.
Then you have Leron Black, who has had some trouble adjusting to the college game. He was inserted into the starting lineup for the time against Purdue and looked absolutely fantastic while recording 15 points and 13 rebounds. He's a great compliment to Nnanna Egwu on offense because his toughness and athleticism provides a low-post presence that the team has lacked.
This undermanned Illinois team will need these two to continue their hot streaks if they're to escape with a win.
2. Maintain possession of the ball
Illinois needs to maintain possession of the basketball in this game. Minnesota's defensive turnover rate of 25.9% is 5th in the nation and they're generating steals 15.2% of the time (3rd). Nate Mason, Deandre Mathieu, and Carlos Morris are all in the top 50 players nation-wide when it comes to steal percentage. You can count on their hands being in passing lanes all night.
The good news? Illinois has been fantastic at protecting the ball. The team's turnover percentage is 4th in country and only 7.3% of offensive possessions result in opposing steals. The Illini can't afford to give Minnesota any extra possessions off of bad passes and miscues.
3. Control the tempo
The Gophers often employ a full court press in an effort to raise the game's tempo. They'll be looking to get out in transition and go as fast as possible (adjusted tempo is 23rd, average possession length is 24th). This would normally be a good thing for a full-strength Illinois team, but this Illinois team is anything BUT full-strength. The Illini can't afford to get in a running match with Minnesota because they don't have the available personal to give players ample rest.
Kendrick Nunn and company need to come to play on both ends of the court Saturday afternoon. They should be in good shape if they can limit Minnesota's transition looks and second chance opportunities.
A lot of fans are going to look at Minnesota's record and think that this'll be a relatively easy win--that's so far from the truth. Although the Illini have had a lot of recent success at Minnesota, The Barn is very tough place to play and the students will be out in full force.
I do think that Illinois will manage to escape with a win, but it won't be easy by any means. I think Andre Hollins will have a big night for the Gophers, but I expect Kendrick Nunn to come close to matching his production.
Illinois 71, Minnesota 68