Illinois will take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers 10-1 (1-1) in Minneapolis on Tuesday. The game was originally scheduled for Sunday and was postponed due to COVID-19 in the Illinois program.
In his press conference, Brad Underwood said that 10 of Illinois’s 15 rostered players tested positive for COVID-19. Those players had to quarantine for five days and wear masks for the following five days. During their quarantine, the 10 players who tested positive couldn’t lift weights or practice, so the team couldn’t field a full practice.
Underwood said that all Illinois players will be available except for Andre Curbelo. Even with full squads, both teams will probably be a little rusty. Illinois missed a week of practice, and neither team has played since Dec. 22.
The Firing of Richard Pitino
Strong starts are nothing new to Minnesota, yet the Gophers often falter when Big Ten play starts. Last year, Minnesota went 9-1 in their first ten games but ended the season with a record of 14-15. This included a 6-14 record in the Big Ten.
This trend ultimately spelled doom for head coach Richard Pitino, who was fired on March 15 after eight seasons in Minneapolis. After Pitino was fired, Minnesota’s top seven scorers all transferred.
The Gophers’ top two scorers were center Liam Robbins and Marcus Carr, an All-Big Ten guard who scored 19.4 PPG. While Minnesota certainly misses Marcus Carr’s talent, his 38.5% shooting and 31.7% on threes was very inefficient. Minnesota has failed to replace the 7-foot, 250-pound Robbins and currently has no centers on their roster.
The Hiring of Ben Johnson
Minnesota didn’t wait long to hire Ben Johnson, nabbing him only six days after firing Pitino. Johnson was a natural fit for the Gophers, as he was born and raised in Minneapolis and played two seasons for the Gophers.
Johnson quickly replaced the players who transferred from Minnesota with seven transfers of his own. Payton Willis returns to Minnesota as a “boomerang transfer” after playing at Vanderbilt for two seasons, Minnesota for one, and the College of Charleston for one. Willis is currently getting 16.3 PPG on 46.0% three-point shooting. It’s still early on, but the Gophers have gone from 39.2% shooting and 28.4% on threes last year to 46.7% shooting and 36.5% on threes this year.
Senior Eric Curry and leading scorer Jamison Battle will have a difficult time against Kofi Cockburn due to their size difference. Curry doesn’t shoot threes, but the 6-foot-7 Battle can get out on the perimeter. This should even out the size disparity a bit, as Kofi, and the Illini in general, struggle to guard forwards on the perimeter The Gophers will have to mix looks in the paint against Cockburn with Curry and fellow senior Charlie Daniels.
Outlook for the Game
Normally, Kofi Cockburn and the Illini should be able to handle a team like this even on the road. However, teams coming off COVID-19 pauses have typically underperformed. That’s because – in addition to physically recovering from the virus – they can’t practice for at least five days.
Further, while the new CDC guidelines allow players to come back after five days instead of ten, it also requires them to wear masks for the following five days. So, it’s possible that we’ll see Illinois players wearing masks.
I expect a slow start offensively from both teams, particularly from Illinois. Regardless, I think the Illini’s size advantage and overall strength as a team will keep the game close and ultimately give them the win.