The first Big Ten road game is usually a rattling at best experience, especially for a young team that hasn’t played a true road game this season. Assembly Hall has been especially cruel to the Gophers who have won once their since 1996, and even in that game, a win that went a long way in sending the Gophers to the NCAA tournament, a 19 point lead was not safe.
Considering all the history, the experience level of the team, and that Illinois may be a better team, the Gophers do have one very important thing on their side: timing. The Gophers catch a huge break starting the conference season with two road games. The student sections will be noticeably more empty and quiet. The Gopher won’t be favored in either game, but they’ll have a better chance to win than they would have later in the season in more raucous environments. It should also benefit the Gophers that Illinois will be playing their first game since a close loss to Missouri in the Bragging Rights game, an annual tradition that amounts to Duke and North Carolina playing on a neutral court. This will be something of a let-down game for the Illini, it almost has to be.
That loss to Missouri was the best game Illinois has played in weeks, and it still isn’t obvious if they are actually figuring things out. They were down by 11 points at the half, and it took a furious comeback to make the game competitive. In the previous game they hung to beat Cornell by four and before that lost to UNLV in disheartening fashing by scoring fewer than 50 points for the second time this season (they scored only 48 in a win over St. Bonaventure on December 7th).
When the Fighting Illini have the ball:
The Fighting Illini have the third worst offense in the Big Ten. They shoot an acceptable 52% inside the two-point line, led by 7’1” center Meyers Leonard, but if those inside shots aren’t falling or are unavailable due to good defense, they don’t have any alternative ways to score. They make only 32% of their three-point attempts and are terrible at getting to the free-throw line. Essentially, they are a jump shooting team that can’t make jump-shots.
Minnesota’s defense has struggled throughout the season because of their inability to play good interior and perimeter defense in the same game. The Gophers defended three-point shooters well against North Dakota State, but allowed too much dribble penetration and the help defense was almost non-existent. The Gophers should let Illinois shoot from the outside and focus more on taking away easier baskets underneath. This is the kind of team Tubby Smith’s ball-line defense was designed to stop. If Illinois makes their open jumpers, then they’ll have to try something else. The Illini are the fifth tallest team in the country, and the now under-sized Gophers could have some trouble defending them man-to-man. Don’t be shocked if the zone returns for more than a few possessions. The Illini aren’t a very good offensive rebounding team either, so going to zone shouldn’t hurt Minnesota’s defensive rebounding too much.
When the Gophers have the ball:
After some dreadful outside shooting to start the season, the Gophers are actually approaching a neutral relationship with the three-pointer. They don’t take a lot of shots from the outside, only 34 teams in the country take fewer three-points, but they are taking smart shotts that are finally going in. Minnesota is now making 35.4% of their three-point attempts compared to a national average of 34%. The Illini defend three-pointers only slightly better than the Gophers and like the Gophers allow an above average number of three-point attempts. Illinois’ interior defense is much better, thanks to the dual shot blocking threat of Leonard and Tyler Griffey. Minnesota has been scoring with ease on the inside, mostly on cuts to the basket and off drives. Illinois will have good help defense, so it will be important to look for the extra pass to spot up shooters. None if this will matter though if the Gophers can’t hold on to the ball. Their turnovers problems are far from cured, and giveaways are a momentum killer, especially on the road. The Gophers need to find ways to get extra shot attempts, and the most likely way this will happen is to continue their excellent offensive rebounding.
What to expect:
This should be a close game with Illinois’ often inept offense preventing them from jumping to a big lead regardless of how the Gophers react to their first road game. In the end though, this game is at Illinois, and the Gophers only win once every generation there.