The Illini will resume Big Ten Conference play on Wednesday in Minneapolis when they take on the Golden Gophers. Richard Pitino is in his fifth season as the Minnesota head coach, and he is coming off his first NCAA Tournament appearance at Minnesota. Pitino is 87-64.
The Gophers are 1-1 in Big Ten play after a win over Rutgers and a loss to Nebraska. Minnesota is 12-3 overall with wins over Providence and Alabama, and losses to Miami and Arkansas.
The Minnesota-Alabama game was one probably the strangest game that will be played in the country. Alabama was forced to play the final 10 minutes of the game with only three players, due to ejections, fouls and injury. The three-man Crimson Tide actually cut the deficit to one possession late in the game, and only lost by five.
Pitino’s squad returns all five starters from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, and four of them are averaging more than 10 points.
Minnesota has great size and post play, which will prove to be a very difficult matchup for Illinois. The Golden Gophers have the second-most blocked shots in all of college basketball, thanks to Reggie Lynch and his astounding four blocks per game.
Minnesota also has the sixth-most total rebounds in the country, an effort spearheaded by Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch. Also of note is Minnesota’s ability to get to the free throw line. They have the eighth-most free throw attempts — and makes — in the country.
Illinois will need a strong gameplan to combat Murphy and Lynch’s size and strength in the paint.
Key Losses and Additions
The only major departure from last year’s team is Akeem Springs. Springs was a 6-foot-4 transfer guard who averaged 9.5 points per game and was a 38 percent three-point shooter on a team high 5.5 attempts per game.
The biggest addition to this year’s Minnesota team is freshman NYC point guard Isaiah Washington. Washington is averaging 8 points, 3 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game this season.
However, perhaps more notable than all of that, he brings his signature layup, ‘The Jelly’.
The most talented all-around player on the Golden Gophers is 6-foot-8 guard Amir Coffey. He is one of my personal favorite players to watch in the Big Ten, and I think he has a bright future at the next level.
I would love to give the Star Watch to Amir Coffey. Due to Illinois’ lack of size and matchup issues, however, the player to watch is forward Jordan Murphy.
Murphy is averaging a double-double with 19 points and 12 rebounds per game this season. Murphy is 6-foot-6 and 250 pounds, but he plays bigger than his listed height. Murphy is a menace down low, and Leron Black will be battling with him all night. Black has the tenacity to hang with Murphy, but Illinois doesn't have the depth up front to contain Murphy and Reggie Lynch.
Look for Murphy to put up 20 and 10 and bully the Illini down low.
This may be the single worst personnel matchup for Illinois in the entire Big Ten. In order for Illinois to win they are going to need to make 10-plus threes, force close to 20 turnovers and get Murphy and Lynch in foul trouble.
I simply don’t think Illinois will be able to do all of those things on the road. I expect another slow start, and few Illinois rallies to keep things interesting as the game wears on. Although, I think Illinois will fall short in the end.
Minnesota 79, Illinois 68