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Minnesota Basketball: Previewing Illinois

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Gophers kick off real conference season at home

New Mexico State v Illinois
The Illini come to town looking for their first conference win.

You guys, we’re finally here. The long slog of the non-conference season is over and we’re ready to kick off the conference* season. Technically the Gophers are 1-1 in B1G play, thanks to our NY-minded overlords, but it’s all conference foes from here on out.

First up is a very beatable Illinois team, who comes into the game at a disappointing 0-2 in the conference. They’ve dropped overtime nailbiters to Northwestern and Maryland so it’s not like they’re getting blown out. Still, at 10-5, they haven’t proven they can beat good teams consistently. They’ve avoided bad losses but also haven’t won anything on the road.

For the Gophers, they find themselves with a winnable conference game after enduring a relatively rough stretch of their schedule. Blowout losses to Nebraska and Arkansas coupled with several underwhelming victories over non-conference cupcakes haven’t inspired much confidence that they’re ready to take the conference by storm. Illinois will be a good barometer of where they’re currently at.

Nate Mason is day-to-day with an ankle injury, so his status for the game is uncertain. If he can’t go it’ll be a heavy dose of Isaiah Washington again.

Essentials:

Who are the Gophers playing?

Illinois Fighting Illini (10-5, 0-2)

What time are they playing?

Weds., Jan. 3 @ 8 p.m. CT

Where are they playing?

Williams Arena

Can I watch the game on TV?

Yes, BTN.

Can I listen to the game on the radio?

Yes, 100.3 KFAN.

Tell me more about the opponent.

It is a dark time for Illinois basketball. The Illini haven’t been to an NCAA tournament in years, haven’t ended in the Top 25 since 2005-06 and hasn’t finished above .500 in the B1G in seven seasons. They rebounded last year to at least make a run in the NIT, but beyond that haven’t been overly dangerous.

Brad Underwood is in his first year as head coach and inherited a roster that lost four of its top five scorers. Filling the vacuum has been redshirt junior PF Leron Black, who has made a leap to become the teams top scorer and rebounder. Averaging nearly 15 ppg and six boards, Black has managed double figures in all but two games this year.

Fellow junior forward Michael Finke is also making a leap, averaging 11.5 ppg and nearly six rebounds. Finke has a three-point streak in him, though, and shot a team high 41 percent from deep last season. He’s had five multi-three games this year.

And don’t forget about junior guard Aaron Jordan, who joins Finke and Black in the “players making a leap” department. He’s been inconsistent, but is averaging 11 ppg while maintaining his reputation as a deep threat.

Keys to the Game

Shut down the three

Illinois is going to present major problems to the Minnesota defense with their versatility and ability to stretch the court. Their forwards can shoot, which means Jordan Murphy and Reggie Lynch will need to extend themselves on defense, which is definitely not their strong suit. Illinois doesn’t shoot the three a ton, but we’ve seen several teams try their luck in that department against the Gophers this season.

If the Illinois deep ball is falling it could be a long night.

Go at Leron Black

Illinois has depth in terms of players who can contribute on the court, but their scoring depth is certainly wanting. Black, the leading scorer by a wide margin, has been susceptible to foul trouble in his career, so it would be advantageous for the Gophers to go at him early and often. Feed the post and let Murphy and Lynch do their thing.

Predictions

KenPom likes the Gophers in this one, predicting an 9-point win, 82-73. I think the Gophers shake off the rust and win by 7.