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Gophers begin meat grinder on the road against Illinois

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Minnesota seeks big win in first conference game

NCAA Basketball: Minnesota at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

The Gophers rebounded from a streak of lackadaisical play to brutally take down UMKC at home in what essentially was the final tune up before things get really weird on the schedule. Minnesota overpowered the Kangaroos at every turn and Liam Robbins’ size was basically a cheat code as the 7-footer rolled to 27 points, nine rebounds and 5 blocks en route to a 90-61 rout.

The win was all well and good — Marcus Carr, Both Gach and Gabe Kalscheur joined Robbins in scoring double figures — and you know it’s a good day when Hunt Conroy gets into the game. But the game was the last of the “easy” games for the Gophers, who now embark on a brutal nine-game stretch that will see them face eight conference opponents who are ranked in the AP Top 25 and Saint Louis, who is ranked #27. NOT GONNA BE PRETTY, FOLKS.

At the very least the step up in competition should show us in pretty short order what this team is capable of. They’ve certainly proved that they can play down to the competition, but they also clearly have the firepower to hang with better teams if they can be even slightly proactive on offense.

They’ll get their first major test on Tuesday when they head down to Champaign to take on Illinois. The Illini are good, but far from infallible. And with no hostile opposing crowd it could be a prime opportunity to start the Big Ten season off on the right foot.

Essentials:

Opponent:

Illinois Fighting Illini (4-2)

Date and Time:

Tuesday, Dec. 15 @ 6 p.m. CT

Location:

State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV:

ESPN2

Radio:

KFAN 100.3-FM

Tell me more about the opponent.

The Illini come into the season with a fair amount of notoriety. Having two players on the Wooden Award Watch List will do that for you. And those two, Ayo Dosunmo and Kofi Cockburn, have lived up to the billing thus far. Dosunmo is second in the Big Ten in scoring at 24.8 points per game, while chipping in 5.2 assists per game. He’s also a preseason All-American and was a unanimous Preseason All-Big Ten Team selection.

Cockburn was also named to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team and is averaging a cool 14.4 ppg while piling on 8.8 rebounds per game. They are a handful together. Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo round out the double-digit scorers.

The Illini are 4-2 on the season, though, and have suffered losses to both Baylor and Missouri, the latter of which came in their most recent game. They also almost dropped one to Ohio, and just barely escaped the Bobcats. They also beat Duke at Cameron Indoor. Hmm.

But how do they stack up against the Gophers? Minnesota is long and disruptive on defense, there’s no doubting that. Kalscheur should make Dosunmo’s night pretty miserable. Down low, Robbins has shown the ability to be a good shot blocker, but he’s ran into foul trouble in almost every game. If Cockburn goes at him hard and gets Robbins into foul trouble early that could spell trouble for Minnesota with veteran Brandon Johnson ailing.

The Illini have the Gophers outgunned on paper, but if Carr, Gach and Kalscheur all come to play this is hardly a mismatch, and last year was closer than the 59-51 final score indicated.

Predictions

The Gophers are 6-0 this season but have they passed the smell test? I can’t say that they have, at least enough to feel confident that they can upset the Illini. They’ve passed the on-court tests so far, but Illinois will represent a significant step up in competition. You gotta hope that the veterans snap into reality and bring their A-game against a good, but beatable opponent.

I think Minnesota surprises us, but I’m taking the Illini by 5, 77-72.