Conference season is reality in college basketball, and during conference games on the road, things get very, very real. With a road trip to the Assembly Halls of Illinois and Indiana, the Golden Gophers face what could be a season defining road trip. If they lose both, those finally suppressed doubts could seep back in. If they split the two games, the Gophers would likely maintain their ranking and have a chance to sneak into the Big Ten title race. If they win both, their ranking would vault as high as #3, with an outside chance of setting up a #1 vs. #2 battle at The Barn next week, depending on how Duke handles their first road test at North Carolina State this weekend. But no pressure or anything…

How to watch and listen:
Even though the game features two top 12 teams, the game is relegated to the 8pm slot on the Big Ten network. Let us all hope Michigan quickly dispatches the Huskers so we can see the whole game. You can also, as always, listen on 1500 am as well. For all you tweeters, Zips and I will be tweeting profusely throughout the game, and some of the tweets might not be groans of agony.

How the Gophers got here:
As noted by Zips, two of the darker moments in basketball history were on display on Sunday night as the Gophers blew out Northwestern. The first half featured the barely watchable version of basketball that went out of style when indoor plumbing became hip. The second half was full on NBA Jam, sadly without giants heads and flaming basketballs. Minnesota’s 2-0 start to the Big Ten season is their best since 2004-2005, the last team to finish in the top four in the Big Ten.

How the Illini got here:
The Illini bring an impressive at first glance record of 14-2 and 1-1 in the Big Ten. When you look closer at their record, it becomes less impressive and more strange. They have undeniably decent to good wins at Gonzaga, against Butler on a neutral court, and home against Ohio State. They have a somewhat mysterious loss at Purdue and a blow-out home win over ever-mysterious Ohio State. They also beat Hawaii, Gardner-Webb, and Auburn by a combined four points. No, I don’t get it either. They are either lucky, they play down to their opponents, or they are occasionally not that good.

Gopher statistic to watch:
If the Gophers are going to beat the Illini, they need to do what they do best, and they are the best offensive rebounding team in the country by an increasingly large margin. After grabbing 64% of their own missed shots against Northwestern, they are now rebounding 49.7% of their own misses on the season. The second best team, South Carolina, is grabbing 45% of their own missed shots. If they keep this up, they may be one of the best offensive rebounding teams in history. Illinois is not a good rebounding team, particularly on the defensive end, where they rank 226th in the country. If they can dominate the glass again, it might not matter how well the Gophers shoot or how well the Illini shoot.

Illini statistic to watch:
Illinois loves to shoot three-pointers, and arguably is addicted to them. The Illini shoot the 15th most three-pointers in the country and score more points from behind the three-point line than all but 15 teams. Obviously, they don’t score many points elsewhere. If the Illini want to be competitive, they need to make their outside shots, or score consistently closer to the basket, something they have not done all season.

The most important Gopher:

That was fun wasn’t it? If Austin Hollins decides to score 17 points in four minutes again, I’m willing to bet that the Gophers will leave the first Assembly Hall of the week in giddy fashion. There should be plenty of opportunities for the elder Hollins to get out and run and knock down those transition threes, but his real necessity is on the defensive end, where he will be guarding Brandon Paul, and several other quick and good shooting guards.

The most important Illini:
Brandon Paul leads the Illini in scoring, rebounding, assists, and turnovers. He has 55 more field goal attempts than any of his teammates. For better or worse, he is the Illini. The better is when his shooting is transformative. When that happens, the Illini can beat anyone. Gonzaga may have their best team in school history this season, but they were no match for Paul’s 35 point barrage. Butler and Ohio State were in trouble when Paul scored 20 and 19. When the senior guard decided to score on 13 against Gardner-Webb, it was going to be a long night. When Paul shot only 28% against Missouri, it wasn’t going to be Illinois’ night. If Paul has another off shooting night, it won’t his team’s night either.

Key match-up:
Austin Hollins and Brandon Paul will be guarding each-other most of the night, so surely they are the key match-up. Nope! That would be way too easy. Instead we will go inside where Trevor Mbakwe, super-rebounder that he is, will be responsible for dominating the glass while chasing around the much improved Tyler Griffey. Griffey provides the Illini with decent height and is at his best shooting from the outside. Griffey will have the opposite of Mbakwe’s problem on the defensive end, trying to defend inside against a much stronger player.

What to expect:
It should be clear after last season that the Gophers and the Illini match-up very well against each other. In 95 minutes of basketball against each other last season, there was a two point difference between the teams. The Gophers lost last season at Illinois in double over-time, but should have won in regulation and at the end of the first overtime. Statistics point to a Gopher win. Minnesota’s history points to a Gopher loss. If this team is different they’ll take care of business and pick up a big road win. This team seems different.

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