It is almost time for the Gophers to face their first Big Ten road test as they travel to Champaign-Urbana to face Illinois. A win tomorrow would be huge and would set the stage for a pair of even bigger matchups between the Gophers and Indiana/Michigan. As a warm up to the game, I sought out Mark (U-God) from the fine Illinois blog The Champaign Room. He kindly accepted my Q&A invitation and answered my brilliant queries.
The Daily Gopher: The Illini's strong start has come as a surprise to most national writers. I'm sure you were hoping to see a higher level of play out of your team, but were you expecting this much early success?
Mark: While I was expecting improvement, I don't think any rational Illini fans thought we would start out like this. I figured there would be 2-3 OOC losses to start the season and then something around .500 during Big Ten play. The Purdue loss was a downer, but that stomping of Ohio State this past weekend put me right back on the strong season bandwagon. I would have been happy with just making the tournament this season. Now I'm expecting it.
TDG: What has surprised you about this Illinois team? Any disappointments (besides the Purdue game)?
Mark: The most surprising thing is how good John Groce has been for the program thus far. Remember back to this spring, Groce was the third choice to replace Bruce Weber and was only brought in after Shaka Smart and Brad Stevens both rejected our overtures. Groce had to come in and get a group of disgruntled seniors and underclassmen to buy into his schemes while fixing recruiting. He's succeeded at both and it's looking like Illinois might be on our way back to where we rightfully belong in the upper echelons of the conference. (ED NOTE: I'd actually forgotten that this is Groce's first season. Not a bad start!)
TDG: Brandon Paul is the name that everyone knows. Who else should Gopher fans be keeping an eye on during Wednesday's game?
Mark: Brandon Paul is without a doubt the star player on this Illini squad, but the past two weekends have been showcases for two other players teams are going to need to start gameplanning for: Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu. Abrams is a sophomore guard who is quickely establishing himself as the second option since D.J. Richardson has been struggling. He's going to be the main man next year, so his development this winter has been very enjoyable to watch. Nnanna Egwu, besides having the most fun name to type, is the biggest player on the team. The 6'11" sophomore has started coming into his own lately and is turning into the rebounding force we desperately need. He's turned into a very good shot blocker and is highly entertaining to watch on dead ball plays.
TDG: How do you feel Illinois matches up with the Gophers? Where do you think Illini has the advantage? Any specific areas of Minnesota's game that have you worried?
Mark: I think the Illini match up well with the Gophers at the guard positions, as an on Brandon Paul is going to be very hard for any player in the Big Ten to guard. But I am fairly nervous about the frontcourt. Minnesota is much, much better at rebounding than Illinois and that could easily cost the Illini the game.
TDG: What is your prediction for Wednesday's game?
Mark: I think the Illini come out on top in a close game. The Illini and the Gophers are likely going to finish in the same area this season, somewhere in that second tier of the conference behind Michigan and Indiana. I believe the two split the season series, each team winning their respective home game. 77-72 Illinois.
Thanks Mark! Hopefully the Gophers take the opportunity to start a new Assembly Hall streak (of the winning kind) and upend your prediction. As always, make sure to be here tomorrow night to participate in the GameThread!