What happened last year:
The Gophers and the Illini only met once last season, and Minnesota came out on top 68-59. It certainly wasn’t the ugliest of Illinois’ losses last season, but it was another winnable game that John Groce’s squad couldn’t close out. Tied 35-35 at halftime, the Illini shot just 30 percent from the field in the second half. Kipper Nichols had arguably his best game of the season, going 6-for-8 from the field and 3-for-3 from three point range, finishing the game with 16 points. Malcolm Hill added 13 points of his own, but he shot a miserable 5-for-18 and 0-for-7 from three. Minnesota, on the other hand, had a balanced attack, with four players (Akeem Springs, Amir Coffey, Nate Mason and Reggie Lynch) all registering points in the double figures.
The Gophers also did an excellent job taking care of the ball, turning it over just five times and holding the Illini to six points off those turnovers and just two fast break points. It should also be noted that this victory (which was a road game for Minnesota) snapped the Gophers’ five-game losing streak in Big Ten play and started a seven-game winning streak. It was an important season for young coach Richard Pitino, and he led the Gophers to an 11-7 conference record and an NCAA tournament bid.
How Illinois could win:
Illinois is going to be outsized in this matchup, just as they will be in several other conference games. That should be okay, as long as guard play can be as efficient on offense as Brad Underwood wants. If the likes of Te’Jon Lucas, Mark Smith and Mark Alstork can run-and-gun how Underwood has been preparing them for, Illinois has a chance for the upset.
Points in transition will also be incredibly important. If the players pick up on Underwood’s aggressive style of defensive play as well and can force turnovers, that can open up three point baskets for guys like Aaron Jordan and Michael Finke.
On defense, this game will require a lot of effort from Finke and Leron Black to match up with the Minnesota big men, but if the offense can make plays, the defense may have an easier time keeping Minnesota off balance.
How Illinois could lose:
Size, again, is a key factor here. Minnesota has plenty of big men on its roster, with seven players listed 6’8” or taller. SEVEN. In comparison, Illinois has three such positions, two of whom are true freshmen. Reggie Lynch (6-foot-10), last year’s Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, led the team in scoring against Illinois with 15 points. He’ll be looking to do the same, and Underwood will have to come up with an answer for him on defense.
Amir Coffey (6-foot-8) will also be looking to put up big numbers in his sophomore season after an excellent freshman campaign.
And let’s not forget Nate Mason — he will be a challenge for a young back court to guard as a preseason All-Big Ten selection. If these guys show up, Illinois could lose what looks to be a tough road game.
The one and only matchup between Minnesota and Illinois will be on Jan. 3 in Minneapolis. It’s just the third Big Ten game of the year for Illinois, and I honestly believe this will be one of the most entertaining games of the year for the Illini.
It will be Underwood’s first true road test, and I expect him to have the boys ready and excited to steal a game from a Minnesota team predicted to finish third in the Big Ten.
I’m (optimistically) seeing the Illini pulling one out in overtime over the Gophers. I think Underwood’s mental toughness and preparation for games will prove to be the key to the upset.