The undermanned Illinois Fighting Illini (13-8, 3-5) put up a valiant effort against Purdue this past week, but they couldn't duplicate that performance on Saturday afternoon against the Minnesota Golden Gophers (13-8, 2-6). The two teams went back-and-forth for most of the game, but the Gophers eventually pulled away thanks to an 18-3 run in the middle of the second half. The Illini certainly battled back towards the end, but it was too little, too late as they fell 79-71.
Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill led the Illini as they each tallied 18 points, but they did so in an inefficient manner; Nunn was 6/14 from the field while Hill went 5/17. Andre Hollins had a huge game for the Gophers--he went off for 28 points on 10/15 shooting.
Illinois will now have a week off before two home contests against Penn State (January 31st) and Rutgers (February 3rd). Before that, here are some observations from the team's loss in Minneapolis:
1. Illinois didn't have enough bodies today
The bye week is coming at a perfect time for Illinois.
Minnesota was able to control the tempo of the game and Illinois' 8 man rotation (that includes Mike LaTulip) wasn't able to keep up. The players just ran out of gas today. Hopefully the team can get Aaron Cosby back in time for Penn State because, love him or hate him, he'd a real nice boost to the backcourt depth.
2. Maverick Morgan played strong
Morgan got quite a bit of playing time in this game and I came away impressed with his performance. He finished the contest with 7 points and 4 rebounds on 3/3 shooting, but the box score really isn't doing him any justice. Mav looked very comfortable out there and it's almost as if the game is starting to slow down for him. It'll be a game-changer if Morgan can become a reliable option off the bench.
3. Leron Black needs to play well for Illinois to win
Leron Black played a nice first half, but Minnesota's big men made adjustments to force him into some silly mistakes later on the in the game. I think expectations ran a little rampant after his 15 points and 13 rebounds against Purdue--Black still has quite a way to go in his development. Having said that, Black was just all over the place in the first half. He tallied an early 5 offensive rebounds, but I believe the team was only able to capitalize on one of those extra possessions.
The bottom line is that Black needs to stay out of foul trouble, which means he needs to move his feet on defense; he's using his hands WAY too much. His initial stance is great, but his hands immediately drop when opposing players take their first dribble. I have no problem with Black fouling down low, but seeing him get called for lazy defense makes me want to pull my hair out. That'll be something to keep an eye on over the next few weeks.
4. Inside shooting was dreadful
The Illini shot a respectable 45.8% from behind the arch, but that dropped all the way down to 32.4% when they attempted two-point field goals. The team, and Malcolm Hill especially, were getting great mid-range looks for most of the game, but they just weren't able to convert them a high percentage.
This is what happens when a jump shooting team can't knock down their jumpers and, sadly, we've seen it a lot over the past few years. The staff should prioritize a low post playmaker on the recruiting trial. If the current team had one of those, they'd be able to pound it inside--which would in turn open up some more outside looks.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
Minnesota Golden Gophers: