The Minnesota Golden Gophers head into Sunday night’s game against Illinois with five losses in their last seven games, with their most recent setback coming against Michigan State on the road last Wednesday night. The Illini are the latest team to upset the No. 1 team in the country, as they beat Indiana on Thursday night, but that was just their third win in conference play as they have also struggled after a nice start to the season.
Minnesota put together one of their best games of the season against Illinois back on January 9, when they traveled to Champaign and got a decisive 84-67 victory. With Sunday’s game coming at the friendly confines of Williams Arena, can the Golden Gophers get their season back on track and earn a season sweep of the Illini?
In the previous matchup, the Golden Gophers were led by 51 combined points from guards Joe Coleman (29) and Andre Hollins (22), and forward Trevor Mbakwe contributed a double-double (19 points and 11 rebounds). That is Coleman’s career-high in points, but he has not been as assertive or effective offensively since that game.
Forward Rodney Williams will also be a key player for Minnesota, both during Sunday’s game and down the stretch of the regular season. His lack of production has coincided with the Golden Gophers’ recent struggles, as his only game with more than 11 points over the last nine games came in a victory over Nebraska on January 29. Williams will be worth watching early in Sunday night’s game, and if he is productive and engaged the rest of the team may follow.
Illinois’ key players are clearly in their backcourt, as their top three scorers-Brandon Paul (17.6 points per game), D.J. Richardson (12.3 points per game) and Tracy Abrams (11.0 points per game)-are all guards. Paul had a team-high 21 points against Minnesota in January, followed by Richardson and Abrams, who each scored 14 points. Forward Nnanna Egwu also had a solid game against the Golden Gophers (eight points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots) in the first matchup, and his ability to hold his own against Mbakwe on both ends of the floor will be a key factor for the Illini on Sunday.
Score Prediction: Minnesota 70, Illinois 65
Brad Berreman is a contributing writer at Rant Sports.com. Follow him on Twitter @bradberreman24.