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Upstart Gophers look for win in first B1G road game versus Illinois

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Nebraska at Michigan acts as the undercard tonight for an exciting clash between two teams that have surpassed expectations so far this season.

Michael Hickey

There are two Big Ten basketball games on tonight. In the first, resident Nebrasketball fan Jesse Collins says that the Huskers have no chance to beat Michigan (7:00 ET, BTN). I think most of use would be inclined to agree. The Huskers came close to defeating Wisconsin on Sunday, but to compete with Michigan, offense is required, and that’s something the Huskers simply don’t have.

Nebraska does have three players on its roster that average double-figure scoring, but its leading scorer, Dylan Talley (13.5 points per game) shoots just 35 percent from the field. The team’s second-leading scorer is three-point specialist Ray Gallegos, who doesn’t shoot threes all that well (32 percent).

Michigan, on the other hand, has been a point-scoring juggernaut that leads the nation in offensive efficiency (per KenPom). Yikes.

The more competitive game tonight should be Minnesota at Illinois (9:00 ET, BTN). The Gophers are coming in fresh off of back-to-back Big Ten home wins, but they’re not without road experience this season. Minnesota has defeated Florida State and USC as visitors in the non-conference season, so the team will be less inclined to be intimidated by the Assembly Hall crowd.

Minnesota will have a good chance to get the win if Trevor Mbakwe can win the battle with the 6’11’’ Nnanna Egwu inside and dominate the offensive glass like he’s been able to do all season. Even against the size of Michigan State, Mbakwe was able to grab five offensive rebounds in just 28 minutes in Minnesota’s win on New Year’s Eve.

Illinois, on the other hand, will want to turn this game into a battle of the guards. Beyond Egwu, there is a lack of productive forwards on the Illinois roster, so head coach John Groce will probably go small and force the Gophers to match him. It’s true that Brandon Paul has been a much more efficient scorer than last season and Tracy Abrams has been a revelation at the point, but Minnesota has its own perimeter threats.

Andre Hollins leads the Gophers in scoring this season with 13.1 points per game, but he’s been held under 10 in two of the team’s last three games. Hollins is more of a boom-or-bust guy. He doesn’t always light up the scoreboard, but when he does, he explodes, like when he put up 22 points against Michigan State or 41 against Memphis.

One "x-factor" guy to watch in this game is Illinois shooting guard D.J. Richardson. He’s averaging 10.6 points per game this season, but he’s failed to score that many points in each of his last five games. Richardson is shooting a miserable 26 percent from the field in those games, and if he continues that rate, the Illini could see this game slip out of their grasp.