Golden Gophers 15-6 (3-6) vs. Illinois 15-5 (4-3)
7:00 PM CST at Williams Arena in Minneapolis, MN
TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 1500 AM
A big game on a cold January Saturday night. What could be better?
This space is usually reserved for disclaimers that there is no such thing as a must win game in January and platitudes about how a season isn’t over until it’s over because of the automatic NCAA tournament bid awarded at the end of the Big Ten Tournament. Nope, I’m not going to do it this time. This is a must win. There is a road to a 6-5 conference record with what could be an absolutely monstrous match-up with the Badgers at The Barn on February 9th that could transform the rest of the season. Illinois is the entrance ramp, and if they miss it things get complicated.
A win puts the Gophers at 4-5 heading into two very winnable road games at Iowa and Nebraska. Even if they only win one of those games, they’d still have a chance to get back to .500 in conference play by beating the Badgers. A loss puts the Gophers at 3-6, needing to win two road games and beat the likely ranked Badgers to get to .500. After that, there are three of four games against ranked teams, two of which will be in the top 10, and a road games against Northwestern which is usually a loss. Yes, the Illinois game matters, a lot. Stranger things can happen and the Gophers could still make the tournament if they lose on Saturday night, but they would need some sort of minor miracle and a run of success in increasingly important games, and these are the Gophers so that isn’t going to happen.
The good news, great news in fact, is that the Gophers barely lost to Illinois twice to tip-off the Big Ten season, and with the involvement of Joe Coleman are a much better team than they were a month ago. Meanwhile, Illinois is still a jump shooting team that can’t shoot particularly well, and has hopefully used up whatever luck let them beat Ohio State. Given their road loss to Penn State, that seems to be the case. The bad news is that the road loss in addition to their home loss to Wisconsin has given the Illini a sense of desperation. If they don’t beat the Gophers, they’ll find themselves on the bubble.
As you might imagine, two teams that played a double overtime game earlier in the season were and still are very evenly matched. For your fill of still mostly accurate statistics, you can read our preview of that first game. The only real difference between than and now is that, knock on wood, the Gophers have finally solved their three-point defense problems. No team has shot better than 31% from behind the three-point line since the first half of the Purdue game when the Boilermakers shot percentages usually reserved for Maury whose the baby-daddy episodes. “I am 300% sure Maury!” Despite having some gifted guards, the Illini so far this season have refused to attack the basket. If the Gophers can keep Illinois out of the lane, scoring becomes exponentially more difficult.
Ralph Sampson III is the real wild-card in this game. Seemingly out of nowhere, he dropped 22 points on Meyers Leonard (student-section, get in this kids head please), a better and taller player than the Gophers senior center. Leonard still had a better game thanks to his five blocks and 11 rebounds, but a no show or a usual Sampson game would have been disastrous. Sampson tends to wilt under pressure. Maybe just this once he can have a big game in a semi-desperate situation.
The final lesson of the first Illinois game, and of the season so far, is that the Gophers must take advantage of opportunities to win. Comparing Minnesota’s performance with the game on the line in the Illinois and Indiana games is like comparing night and day. Against Illinois, missed free-throws and a missed lay-up cost them the game. At Indiana, clutch jump-shots and hustle won the game. Nerves were no doubt a factor in the first Big Ten game of the season for a significant portion of the roster. Now, nearly half-way through the first half of the Big Ten season, and especially playing at home, a more mature team can act like it.
I hope you understand the importance of the game, and if you are going to the game, I hope you act like it. The season is balanced pretty even on a fulcrum right now. A win tilts it toward some very fun upcoming games and potential trip to the NCAA tournament. A loss tilts it the other way. Do your part. Be loud, and if the rest of your section isn’t being loud, motivate, shame, cajole, beg, or do anything else you can until they are.