JF

Regardless of who you ask, or if you believe that the NCAA can erase history, Minnesota hasn’t beaten Illinois in a long time. If the seasons that officially no longer exist are counted, Minnesota last beat Illinois in 1999 by a score of 75-63. In that game Quincy Lewis scored 28 points and someone named Mitch Ohnstad managed to score 9 points. On the defensive end Miles Tarver and Joel Prysbilla shut down Illinnois. According to the NCAA, which has the power to erase history, Minnesota last beat the Illini in 1993, when Voshon Lenard, Randy Carter, and Ariel McDonald led Minnesota to an NIT championship. Since 1993, Minnesota is 5-20 against Illinois, losers of 16 or 21 straight, their worst record against any Big Ten team.

Surely you remember 1999, when Prince was everywhere and we were all afraid the world would end because of computer glitches. The Vikings choked (again). Mike Tyson went to jail (again). Khalid El-Amin became the first Minnesotan to not choke. The US invaded Kosovo. Everyone loved Napster. Regis Philbin was the country’s favorite game show host.

In 1993, Blake Hoffarber was 3. Bill Clinton became president. The Bills choked (again). Gary Coleman sued his parents for over $1 million and won.  Whitney Houston was relavant. The World Wide Web was born. The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers premiered. Conan O’brien got his own TV show. All hell broke loose in Somalia, Burundi, Sri Lanka, the former Yugoslavia, and Apartheid finally ended in South Africa.

Yes, it has been awhile. But tonight, with the Gophers coming off a couple good games and Illinois continuing to struggle, the streak may finally end. However, please don’t put this in the win column just yet because Minnesota has found some strange ways to lose to Illinois.

Looking at the records alone, this should be a gimme. But whether Illinois is willing to accept the title or not, they are the best bad basketball team in the country. Last year’s fourth place Big Ten team lost  two starters (and as you all know by now a certain freshman phenom playing at Indiana) but in no way expected to be this bad. A few warning bells went off during the preseason after blowing a late lead to Arizona, and an over time losses to Miami of Ohio, but so much can happen throughout a basketball game, it could have been bad luck more than anything.  Then they lost to Tennessee State at home, and it became clear that there was more than a luck issue. After four straight losses to start the conference season the Illini are tied with Michigan in 9th place in the Big Ten, and are having their worst season since the last time they lost to Minnesota.

Despite their horrible record, I have a hard time believing they are that bad. Shaun Pruitt is a powerful rebounder that could start for anyone in the country, and he has already tripled his assist total from a year ago (from 7 to 21, ouch). Brian Randle is 6’8″ but shot 35% from behind the three point line last year (23% this year, ouch). Trent Meachem has improved in every statistical category. Chester Frasier should be one of the better point guards in the country. Heck, they even have Michael Jordan’s kid. Unlike the rest of Big Ten bottom feeders, exactly what ails Illinois remains a mystery, and this mystery factor is why I am not very confident. If they finally played up to their potential, they could beat the Gophers, but if they haven’t put it together after 24 games, maybe they never will.

Illinois could pose some match-up problems for the Gophers. Shawn Pruitt, of missed free-throw to win game fame, is one the 31st best offensive rebounder in the country. He is taller and more athletic than Spencer Tollackson (don’t expect much from the Gopher center tonight) and average more than 3 offensive rebounds a game (7 total), can score (12.5 ppg) and generally stays out of foul trouble. Brian Randle is another tall, athletic forward that has failed to live up to his potential more than Dan Coleman, though he still manages more than 10 points and almost 6 rebounds per game. The Gophers have been dependent on their post play, which when effective, opens up the outside for Minnesota’s guards. If Minnesota can establish enough of an inside presence to attract attention, Minnesota should be in good shape.

As a team, Illinois just doesn’t score much. They play about as slow as Iowa and Northwestern, and score just as much (which is strange since they are quite athletic). They don’t make many shots (which may partially inflate their offensive rebounding totals), they don’t force turnovers (219 in the country), or make free throws (59.5%) or make three pointers (314th in the country). Hmm, maybe they really aren’t that good.

I think the streak will end, finally, but not easily. If there was a bad basketball team to designed to beat Minnesota, it just might be Illinois and it has been 16 year since we officially beat them. I know that shouldn’t matter, but it does make you wonder if there is something working against Minnesota. Even if there is, I predict Minnesota to win 68-61. Maybe Bruce Weber has some eligibility left.