Illinois, college basketball's anomaly who knocks off Goliath as often as it falls to David, heads up the road to the winter wonderland that is Minneapolis to take on a suddenly unsure-of-itself Minnesota team. The Gophers hope to stem the recent tide of losing and right the ship against an Illini squad bent on showing that the win over Indiana wasn't a fluke. Oh, the story lines!
I caught up with Robert, a level-headed Illini fan who operates the Illinois blog A Lion Eye, to answer some questions and give some insight into the enigmatic Orange before Sunday's game.
1. The Illini have been up and down all season. Their ups have been huge but, prior to the recent thriller against Indiana, they were looking a little iffy. How does their victory over the Hoosiers change things for Illinois?
ALionEye: I'm not certain it changes much, other than "if the season ended today we'd be in". The home loss to Northwestern proved that we could lose to anyone in the conference. I don't think Penn State in Champaign is a gimme. We needed a buzzer beater to beat Gardner-Webb earlier in the season. We beat Hawaii on a three pointer that was released with 0.1 remaining on the clock. We could beat #1, and then we could lose at home to Nebraska.
This is the craziest season I can remember. In the current AP top-25, we have wins over #1 (at home), #6 (at their place), #10 (at home), and #14 (in Maui). I'm pretty sure there's no other team in the country with four top-15 wins at this point. And THAT team - that "won the Maui, won at Gonzaga, beat Ohio State and Indiana" team - is 3-7 in the Big Ten and tied for 9th with Iowa.
2. Minnesota came into Champaign earlier this season and walked away with a double digit victory. What does Illinois need to do to prevent that from happening again?
ALE: Keep Joe Coleman from scoring 29 points. I thought Illinois played really well against Minnesota in that game. But the Gophers shot 53% from the field, 60% from three, and ran away with it late. It's weird - the Indiana game and the Minnesota game were very similar. We're playing well, but the other team is shooting lights out. And both games had the same deficit - we trailed by nine with about 3:30 to go.
Indiana folded and we knocked them off at the buzzer - Minnesota surged (well, Joe Coleman surged) and we lost by 17.
Obviously, Coleman won't do that again this season (he won't, right?). But Rodney Williams won't be held to 8 and 5, either. Obviously, with our mostly nonexistent frontcourt, we're in big trouble since we really don't have anyone who can shut down Mbakwe and Williams. Our guards might have a hot game, and we might shoot the ball well like we did in the second half against Indiana. But if we can't find some way to keep Mbakwe and Williams from dominating the paint, it won't matter.
z: The Gophers are a much different team than when we last saw them in Champaign. Over the last five games they've scored more than 62 points only once. Prior to that they hadn't scored less than 65 points all year, so something is amiss. They're playing sloppy on offense, not getting good looks and going away from what was working earlier in the season; namely going to Trevor Mbakwe and lot and scoring in transition.
In terms of what Illinois needs to do to keep Minnesota off balance I'm not convinced it's up to them. The Gophers' losses and poor play have been largely self-inflicted, meaning that it has more to do with them not executing than giving credit to the other team. Michigan State was begging to give the game away in East Lansing, but Minnesota couldn't capitalize on account of poor offensive execution. That said, if Illinois can hit their threes and mitigate the Minnesota impact down low then the Gophers are in a bind. They haven't been as explosive recently and falling victim to a long-range attack is something that they're definitely susceptible to. They're not equipped to bounce back from large deficits and with Illinois able to rack up points in a hurry their biggest weapon will be effectiveness from deep.
3. At the same time, Minnesota now holds the home court advantage. How can the Gophers ensure they walk away with a victory on Sunday?
ALE: Well, since Coleman won't score 29 again, they'll need some production from their bench. In Champaign, Minnesota scored 84 points without a single point from any bench players. So they'll need to replace Coleman's hot game with scoring from other areas.
The best way to do that? Let Mbakwe touch the ball as much as possible. We only have two post players, and our center fouls a lot, so if I was Tubby, my game plan would be this: pound it down low on the first 10 possessions of the game. Nnanna Egwu will pick up his second foul 3:00 in, sit for the rest of the half, and it can be the Mbakwe/Williams show while we try to get creative and find ways to guard them.
z: Save for the Nebraska blowout, the Gopher offense has been basically non-existent the past few weeks. I have dozens of ideas floating around in my head of why they've come off the rails, but the biggest thing they need to do is get the ball down low to Mbakwe. Illinois doesn't have much of answer for him or Rodney Williams and with enough opportunities Minnesota should be able to wear down the Illini down low. For unknown, terribly frustrating reasons the Gophers have gotten away from what works on offense, and a lot of that has been a movement away from giving Mbakwe the ball. It's gotten ridiculous.
On the other side of the ball Minnesota needs to stop worrying about helping out down low and worry about taking away the outside game for Illinois. They've gotten into a bad habit of collapsing on defense to help out down low when it's really not necessary. This left a whole lot of open three pointers available for Michigan State, which eventually spelled doom. Illinois won't hurt Minnesota inside, so the Gophers need to focus on taking them out of their comfort zone around the arc. They did this well in the first meeting, so we'll see if they can do it again.
4. Both the Illini and Gophers have looked like two different teams this year. Who are the "real" Illinois and Minnesota teams, respectively?
ALE: The real Illini team is the one that needs scoring from its guards if they want any chance of winning. The roster the Bruce Weber left for John Groce had talent, but it wasn't really a team. No true point guard on the entire roster, five wing guards, a bunch of power forwards who's main skill is drifting to the three point line and knocking down some shots, and two post players. John Groce's first recruiting class that he signed in November? A point guard, a shooting guard, a wing guard, a power forward, and a true center.
Given all of that, it's no surprise that we're Jekyll and Hyde. We don't have a frontcourt that can bail us out when our shots aren't falling. We simply don't have any space eaters or rebounders. It is what it is, so we try to make the best of it. When our guards are on, we can be really, really good. When they're off, we lose to Northwestern at home by 14.
z: The Gophers caught some sort of bug during the Northwestern game and they haven't been able to shake whatever has afflicted them since that terrible day. Since then they have looked like a scared, timid shell of their earlier selves with an overall lack of confidence. And seeing that they beat Michigan State and Illinois before they went off the deep end I'm still convinced that this recent string of games is an abnormality. The problem is Minnesota is going down the exact same road they have the last few seasons where they completely fall apart.
The veteran presence and experience as a team from last year was expected to carry over to this year and initially did. Recently, though, they've looked like their past selves. Can Tubby help them rebound and find their confidence? That hasn't been his specialty. However, I do feel that this team is closer to a top 15-20 squad in the nation rather than an unranked bubble team. They had a rough start to the B1G schedule and, while they do have quite a few losses in the conference, they've really only lost one game they weren't supposed to. The question is if that will continue and if they can steal a game to even things out.
5. When all is said and done, how do you see this game playing out?
ALE: Well, for starters, a question. Is Joe Coleman going to score 19 points above his season average again? Because if Joe Coleman is going to score 29 again, we have no chance. If he doesn't, given Minnesota's bench issues, I think this game is closer than the one in Champaign.
But I can't see us winning. Hung over from the Indiana win, on the road in a gym that's tough to shoot in, Trevor Mbakwe going off for 24 and 15.
Minnesota 71, Illinois 63
z: This is a tough one. On one hand the Gophers have been underachieving as of late and I don't feel confident that they know how to break out of this slump they're currently in. On the other hand Illinois might be a little spent from their comeback against Indiana. Might they be a little off against Minnesota on the road? Overall I like the way the Gophers match up with the Illini and I think a game at home against a team they can beat is precisely what they need right about now. It's not going to be the double digit victory they had in Champaign but I think this is a game where the Gophers get back on track. I like them 71-67.