Golden Gophers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini

8:00 pm (CST) at Williams Arena (Minneapolis, MN)


Best tickets left:  obstructed seats in the lower level corners

Early February is probably a little too early to be making NCAA tournament pronouncements, but it isn’t too early to point out teams that are either hurting or helping their post-season prospects. Neither the Golden Gophers nor the Illinois Fighting Illini have done themselves any favors in recent weeks. This once had all the makings of a showdown between two top shelf Big Ten teams battling for the second or third seed in the Big Ten tournament. Now, both teams are making a desperate effort to stay off the bubble and out of the play-in game in the Big Ten tournament.

Despite the difference in talent level and tradition, the Gopher and Illinois programs have mirrored each other the last few seasons, much to the chagrin of all involved. Three years ago, an underachieving Illini squad beat the first Tubby Smith coached Gopher squad three times  to keep the Gophers out of the NCAA tournament. Two years ago, both the Gophers and Illini had brutal offenses, but the Gophers were able to win their home game, their first against Illinois in decades, before losing once again at Illinois. The scores of those two games were 59-36 and 52-41, brutal. Both teams overcame their many faults and made the NCAA tournament. Throughout last season, the Gophers couldn’t hold a lead, and Illinois could never manage to get going early in games. This produced a wacky tale of two halves, with the Gophers nearly blowing a 17 point lead in the final nine minutes. That win in Illinois, their first in another few decades, likely secured their spot in the NCAA tournament over the Illini, who finished ahead of the Gophers in the Big Ten standing. It seems only fitting that the Illini and Gophers would once again meet in a game with major NCAA tournament implications. It isn’t a must win for either team because their is just too much season left, but the committee will be watching.

Illinois is having another confounding season that is becoming the norm under Bruce Weber. They have a 15-8 (5-5) record, but have lost 5 of their last 7 games. Their only wins over that stretch were at home against Penn State and mid-meltdown Michigan State. They have more bad losses than any potential bubble team would be comfortable with including to Paul Carter and Illinois-Chicago and road games at Indiana, Penn State, and Northwestern. While the Gophers’ losses and recent struggles can be easily explained away with personnel losses, Illinois’ struggles are something of a mystery.

My theory, based on on pure speculation and watching a few Illinois games, is that they might just have too much talent. They have so many good players that the effort isn’t always there, and when it isn’t, bad things happen to what should be good teams. We’ve seen the Gophers play down to bad opponents all season, but the Gophers at least realize that there are certain teams they are unable to beat by just showing up. The Illini, with several potential NBA players on their roster, have shown up physically but not mentally to too many games. They may also be victims of the bystander effects, the psychological principle in which an individual does not act because they think someone else will. In Illinois’ case, an individual player may not exert extra effort because they assume a teammate will pick up the slack.

In a way, the Illini players should be on to something, because the team is stacked with talent. Demetri McCamey exemplifies the inconsistent effort. An All Big Ten player a year ago, the senior point guard was expected to put together a campaign for Big Ten player of the year. His overall statistics, 14 points, 6 assists, and 3 rebounds per game, should be enough to be an all conference selection again, but his generally disinterested attitude towards defense and his disappearing act in important games could put that in jeopardy. From January 11th through February 1st he didn’t come close to shooting above 50% in any game. Mike Davis nearly averaged a double-double last season, but has dropped nearly three rebounds per game from last season. The super skinny power forward struggles against more physical players, and will have his hands, arms, and everything else full trying to stay in front of Trevor Mbakwe. Mike Tisdale has Ralph Sampson III syndrome, or maybe vice versa. Both players are incredibly tall, and incredible contact averse. Illinois’ 7’1” center has attempted 26 three pointers on the season. DJ Richardson was the Big Ten freshman of the year last season, but has seen his production drop a point and a rebound per game. Brandon Paul provides some occasional ball handling, and joins the plethora of guards averaging around 9 points and 20 minutes per game. Jereme Richmond will earn a lot of money someday, but until then is a super talented and fairly raw small forward. He scores 8 points with 5 rebounds per game. He has shown moments of brilliance buried among long stretches of inconsistency, just like his entire team. Bill Cole led the Illini near-comeback against the Gophers last season, and will be a dangerous weapon against the Gopher zone. At 6’9” and a 40% three point shooter, he has the height and the skill to be a real zone buster.

All these super skilled players with questionable motivation have put up good team statistics, and according to Ken Pomeroy are the 15th ranked team in the country. They are the 6th best three point shooting team in the country, which is more than worrisome, but they attempt barely 30% of their field goal attempts from the outside. Their other 70% of field goal attempts come down low, where they make less than half their attempts. Their success tomorrow will undoubtedly depend on where they choose to attack the zone. The only Illini offensive weakness is getting to the free throw line, where they rank 309th in the country.

Defensively, Illinois ranks 25 in the country, mostly due to their length. They are the tallest team in the country, and because of that, do not leave a lot of room to operate. They have the 19th best 3 point defense in the country, and force opponents into taking a third of their shots from behind the three point line. They block a lot of shots on the inside, ranking 27th in the country, but overall their interior defense ranks 79th in the country.

The Gophers have a great chance to pick up another quality win against a team that is better than how they are currently playing. They’ll need more consistent play from the starting line-up to do that though. Austin Hollins and Chip Armelin should have earned starters minutes, if not spots in the starting line-up by now, and should each see at least 20 minutes of playing time. Between them, they provide the desperately needed slasher and second outside shooter. Rodney Williams may some day be a great player, but his lack of basketball skills are catching up to him, and he isn’t a viable option until he improves. Trevor Mbakwe will need to play like he did early in the season. Playing against the soft Illinois front line should help.

This game won’t decide the season, but there is no doubt about its importance. A win puts the Gophers at .500 in conference play, with arguably the easiest final six games. Win half of those, and they should be in the tournament. A loss tomorrow will set up another late season scramble, and with limited roster options, it won’t be easy.