Illini host struggling Gophers

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By Lucas Deal

When No. 8 Illinois (17-2, 3-2) welcomes fellow Big Ten foe Minnesota to Assembly Hall tonight, Illini head coach Bruce Weber hopes his team won’t get caught up on the Gophers’ disappointing conference record, but will instead focus on the team Minnesota head coach Dan Monson puts on the floor.

“They have a lot of talent,” Weber said of Monson’s Gophers, who are currently 9-7 overall, but have struggled to an 0-5 start in the Big Ten. “Last year, they were the surprise of the league.”

One main reason for Minnesota’s bad conference start has been the injury struggles of its best player, 2005 first-team all-Big Ten forward Vincent Grier.

Last season, Grier averaged 17.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game for the 21-11 Gophers, who reached the NCAA tournament for the first time since 1999.

This year, Grier has played in only 10 games and has averaged just over 15 points per game.

“They were hungry last year,” Weber said of Minnesota. “This year, Grier was out for a while and since he’s come back they haven’t really clicked. They still scare you, because they have a lot of talent and can push teams.”

Just one week ago, the Gophers pushed Iowa to triple-overtime before falling 76-72 to the Hawkeyes in Iowa City.

Weber said Minnesota is more than capable of doing the same thing to the Illini.

If North Dakota State could win at Wisconsin, he said, anything could happen.

“Of all the upsets last weekend, (Wisconsin’s) was the most alarming,” Weber said. “It shows that what’s on paper doesn’t always happen.”

But Weber was also quick to add that when the Illini play their best, they’re awfully hard to beat.

“When we played Georgetown, granted it was at home, we really controlled the game,” Weber said. “And then they go out and beat Duke.

“If we play like we should, then we should be able to win this game.”