JF

#24  Golden Gophers vs. #20 Illinois Fighting Illini

8:00 (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

Radio: WCCO 830 AM

TV: BTN

Tickets: Still a few obstructed seats left

Chatroom: I won’t be here, but if you are, stop by and discuss the game

Minnesota is 0 for the 00’s against Illinois, and has not won against the Illini since February 3, 1999. It was two days after Hugo Chavez took power in Venezuela and the Euro had been around for only a month. The Gophers were going through a disappointing season, at least by the program’s standards at the time. Illinois was struggling by any standard, winning only  three Big Ten games that season, and the Gophers took care of business.  The Gophers eventually went 8-8 that season and snuck into the NCAA tournament. In the game before the NCAA tournament, the underdog Illini beat the heavily favored Gophers, and the streak began.That last Illinois game wasn’t just another dud in the Big Ten tournament, it was a watershed moment for both programs.

Hours before Minnesota’s next game against Gonzaga in the NCAA tournament, word broke that there was widespread academic fraud in the Gopher basketball program. Players were suspended, the Gophers lost to Gonzaga who became the darling of the basketball world during their tournmanet run, Clem Haskins was fired, players transfered, and then Dan Monson, the coach of Gonzaga was hired to coach the Gophers. Then things got really bad. Minnesota has only made the NCAA tournament once since all that took place, and are finally back on track.

In 2000, Illinois returned to their winning ways, reached the NCAA tournamant, and won in the first round. In 2001 they won 27 games and were a #1 seed, eventually losing in the Elite Eight. A year later it was another 26 wins and a Sweet 16 . In 2002 the Illini knocked the Gophers out  of the NCAA tournament contention on the last day of the Big Ten season on a last second shot. Minnesota went to the NIT, Illinois to the Sweet 16. The next year brough 25 wins but a second round loss. The Gopher lost in the semifinals of the NIT. The next year the Gophers won 12 games. Illinois won twice as many and was in the sweet 16 again. In 2005 the Gophers were finally back in the tournament. Illinois was five points from the national championship. The following year it was a second round exit for both teams, the Gophers in the NIT, and Illinois in a tournament that matters. A year later both teams wanted to forget what their teams had been through. Minnesota won seven games, Illinois lost in the first round. In 2007-2008 things had finally turned around, but really nothing changed.

Get rid of Illinois, and the Gophers would have been in the NCAA tournamant last year. It’s really that simple. Minnesota won every game they were supposed to except their three match-ups against the Illini, and Illinois was just plain bad. They were having their worst season since their last loss to the Gophers, and went only 14-18. They barely beat Hawaii, lost at home to Tennessee State and Penn State both on the road and at home. They were one of the worst free throw and three point shooting teams in the country. At least they were before they played the Gophers.  In their lone match-up in Williams Arena, the Gophers were blown out in their biggest home loss since 1992.  That horrible shooting team made 70% from the free throw line (they averaged 61% on the season) and made 7-13 three pointers (they averaged 32%). Illinois’s student section the “Orange Krush: made the trip, and made the only noise in a very long night in The Barn.  Minnesota only lost by nine at Illinois, but gave up an impossible 58% of offensive rebound opportunities, and were out rebounded 43-17.  The Illini once again shot better than 50%  from outside. In their third and final game, Illinois won the battle of the free throws and the game. Minnesota’s slim tournament hopes were long gone after that, and the streak stood at 20.

Don’t be surprised if the streak keeps on growing tomorrow night. Illinois comes into Thursday’s game tied for second place in the Big Ten with a 17-3 (5-2) record. They’ve lost to Michigan State and at Michigan, and beaten Purdue, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio State, and Wisconsin. Their best non-conference win was over Missiouri on a neutral court, and their only loss was by two at home to Clemson. Minnesota isn’t the only improved team in the Big Ten.

Illinois prefers a slightly slower pace than the Gophers, and averages two possessions less than the Gophers per game. They average 1.1 points per possession, the same as the Gophers, but are a better shooting team, making 37% from three and 52% inside the arc, both about a percent better than the Gophers. The Illini have dramatically improved their free throw shooting, up to 73%, but only three teames in the entire country get to the line less often. The only thing Illinois does worse than last year is Minnesota’s biggest advantage. Despite all their problems last year, the Illini could rebound offensively. This year Minnesota’s offensive rebounding percentage is five points higher than Illinois.

On the defensive end Illinois gives up only .86 points per possession, and they do this with the third best three point defense in the country. Their opponents make 44.6% of two point field goals. In what has to be a statistical anamoly more than anything else, the  Illinois opponents make 59.5% of their free throw attempts. Illinois forces turnovers on 23% of their opponents’ possessions, and allows offensive rebounds on 33% of missed shots.

Keys for the Gophers

1. Bring back the press. They barely made any shots against Purdue, which took away a lot of opportunties for Minnesota to set up a pressure defense. Against Indiana, for whatever reason, the Gophers never implemented it. After watching Illinois against Wisconsin’s press, committing four turnovers in the last three minites of the game, the Illini look vulnerable.

2. Get the ball inside. Minnesota’s offense was clicking when Ralph Sampson III got his touches. With Illinois’ great three point defense, outside shots might as well be turnovers.

3. Abandon the “Twin Towers”. The Gophers have gotten off to slow starts in their last several game. Giving up an early lead will give up the chance to win.

Keys for the Illini

1. Keep the Gophers off the foul line. Al Nolen has taken over when Minnesota’s offense has gone stagnant, driving to the basket on nearly every possession and getting to the line. If the Gophers shot their normal number of free throws in their last two games, the Gophers would be hoping to avoid a three game losing streak on Thursday.

2. Force the Gophers to shoot from the outside. The Gophers are inconsistent on the inside and horrible lately from the outside. Illinois should double down on the Gophers on the inside until they consistently make three pointers.

3. Avoid turnovers. Maybe their difficulties against the press were a fluke. We should find out tomorrow night.

Key Players for the Gophers

1. Al Nolen has to have another multi-assist, few turnover, lock down defensive night.

2. Ralph Samspon III took a big step at Indiana. He’ll be facing the most size of his college career.

3. Paul Carter might get the start, and should see plenty of minutes as Colton Iverson’s minutes slip away. Never under estimate Carter’s ability to make a game changing play.

Key Players for the Illini

1. Mike Tisdale may still look like a giant anorexic turtle, but he has quadupled his scoring output over last year, has a decent outside touch, and is a nighmare of a matchup.

2. Demitri McCamey is his teams leading scorer and averages 5.1 assists per game.

3. Trent Meacham is Illinois’s best three point shooter and absolutely killed the Gophers last year, averaging 20 points per game in their two regular season meetings.

Prediction: All long streaks must come to an end, but not tomorrow night. To be frank, a 20 point Illinois win is more likely than Gopher win, so why not guess a score right in the middle? Minnesota 65 Illinois 75

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