The Big Ten season is still in its infancy and already we’ve had some big time match ups However, none is bigger to this point than the one Wednesday night in Champaign as the Minnesota Golden Gophers come to town to battle the Illinois Fighting Illini. It is a fascinating match up of contrasting styles as a veteran head coach (Tubby Smith) will try to out duel a league “rookie” (John Groce). Both teams are thinking of grabbing a conference title and this one will have a lot to say about that. Let’s break it down from both sides starting with the Gophers.
I was high on this Minnesota team coming into this year but there were certainly a lot of questions that needed to be answered. Would Trevor Mbawke return to his explosive form pre-injury? Who would be the point guard? What lineup would Minnesota generally employ? Only the first question has really been answered, in full, but that’s probably the biggest one of all. For Minnesota to win this game it will be done on the glass. The Illini are a really poor rebounding team and that’s why they like to get easy buckets in transition.
However, the Illinois coaching staff knows that’s where the Gophers are particularly strong so I think they’ll try and slow it down a bit. Since it is really difficult to speed up a game, Minnesota will need to manage. Their half court offense right now is still a work in progress. That puts the onus on Mbawke and Rodney Williams to clean the glass. I believe they will. Statistically, look at the rebounding margin between these two teams. If Minnesota has a 2 to 1 or even 3 to 1 edge on the glass they’ll likely win.
As I mentioned above, the Illini have a real “catch-22” in this one. They are most effective when they get out in transition. It helps negate their lack of size and gives their guards clean looks at the basket. That won’t be the case though in this one. Austin Hollins is one of the best defenders in the Big Ten and that means Illinois’s ball movement will be a major factor. Brandon Paul can’t afford to be selfish and just jack up long threes. They’ll need to make the extra pass off penetration from a ball screen. Groce’s offense is simple but sometimes it devolves too much into a two man game. If you don’t work the ball around the perimeter the Minnesota bigs will erase virtually anything inside. No more than 15- 20 threes should be a goal in this game. Have patience and make Minnesota guard you for 20-25 seconds. You are at home and able to feed off the crowd. Don’t take them out of the game with your own actions.
PREDICTION: Minnesota 64 – Illinois 57.
This will be an excellent game. While I don’t see either team running away from the start, and the Illini are damn near unbeatable at home this year, I think the Gophers edge on the glass will just be too much to overcome. Generally effort and rebounding are skills that “travel” well. The Illini have had off nights from the perimeter but they’ve gotten away with it. I think that ends this Wednesday.
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