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Minnesota Basketball: Previewing Illinois

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Gophers desperately seeking win after recent swoon

NCAA Basketball: Wisconsin at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

If ever there was a chance for the Gophers to get their season back on track, a road slate with Illinois might be it.

Minnesota was offered a brutal scheduling start to their conference season, having already faced the Big Ten’s top five teams (including Michigan State twice). And though the Gophers thankfully stole two impressive road wins over Purdue and Northwestern, their recent five-game skid has put their surprising NCAA Tournament hopes in danger.

Minnesota still sits as a 9 seed in ESPN’s Bracketology, which means they’re still safely “in” if the season were to end today. That’s both good and bad news for Minnesota. Good in the sense that they still control their own destiny if they win the games they should. Bad in the sense that the cushion they gave themselves early in the season by overachieving has evaporated with their losing streak.

On paper, things finally loosen up for the beleaguered Gophers, who get a struggling Illini team that has lost five of its past six games, and six of their last eight. Unfortunately, the game is on the road where wins are never easy. And further complicating matters, the Illini have played their best ball at home, where all three of their conference victories have come.

It’s basically put up or shut up time for Minnesota. It’s not a “must-win” game in the true sense of the word, but its contests against teams like Illinois where they need to rise above and show they can win games they’re supposed to.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

Illinois Fighting Illini (13-10, 3-7)

What time are they playing?

3 p.m. CT

Where are they playing?

State Farm Center

Can I watch the game on TV?

Yes, BTN

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes. ESPN 1500.

Tell me more about the opponent.

Illinois had a terrible season last year, finishing 12th ahead of Minnesota and Rutgers, and things haven’t been any better this year. Tracy Abrams is a shell of his former self, after missing all of last year with a torn ACL.

The Illini are led by Malcolm Hill, and it’s not close. The 6-6 swingman has been dominant all season and really difficult to guard. He has nine games of 20+ points this year, including a 40-point outburst in the second game of the season. He shoots threes, he gets to the line and he’s really strong.

Senior C Maverick Morgan has stepped up in the latter half of the season with 11 double digit efforts in his last 13 games. He hasn’t been a force on the boards, however, which should give Reggie Lynch some opportunity ... if he can stay on the court.

Abrams, on the other hand, after averaging more than 10 points per game for two straight years, has only scored more than seven points once since Dec. 12.

Keys to the Game

1. Keep Michael Finke in check

The key to the game for the Illini isn’t necessarily Malcolm Hill. He’s going to get his points whether the opponent wants to or not. Instead, the Illini have found themselves on the winning side of the coin when sophomore Michael Finke has come to play. He’s scored in double digits only three times this conference season, but each of those times has been in a winning effort. He’s a 6-10 forward how can launch threes, and we saw how quickly that sunk the Gophers against Maryland.

2. Shut down the three

If the Maryland game taught us anything it’s that the Gophers are not immune to the three ball. They have (had?) a great three-point defense, but were exposed against a hot-shooting Terrapin team. Illinois’ offense is hardly prolific, and they’ve scored 70 or more points only once in their last six games. But when they’re putting up big numbers it’s because they’re hitting threes. If the Gophers can keep the Illini within the three-point stripe they have the advantage.

Predictions

KenPom is giving the edge to the Gophers by 1 in this one 68-67, but it’s really a true toss up. In the midst of a five-game slump I can’t advocate for Minnesota on the road. I’ll take the Illini by 3 in a heartbreaker.