Illinois in search of first conference road win



By Jason Grodsky

The Illinois basketball team is still without a Big Ten road victory this season. But a trip north to Minnesota could be just what the team needs to regain its composure and claim its first conference win of the year.

Illinois has felt right at home at Williams Arena, winning eight consecutive road games at one of college basketball’s oldest venues.

The Illini last lost at Minnesota in 1999, falling 75-63 to the then-No. 18 Gophers. Since that game, the series between Illinois and Minnesota has been completely one sided.

The Illini (10-14, 2-9 in Big Ten) have won the last 17 games between the two, including three in the Big Ten Tournament, making it the longest active winning streak by any Big Ten school over a conference opponent.

Since Illinois last loss in Minnesota, the two programs have gone in opposite directions. In the 1999-2000 season, the Illini began their streak of eight straight years of qualifying for the NCAA Tournament, reaching the national final in 2005, while the Gophers have made it into the NCAA Tournament just once, in 2005.

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But this year’s Minnesota squad (15-7, 5-5) has a refined confidence that has it in contention for postseason play.

“(Minnesota) has a lot of the same guys, but they are playing with more confidence and new direction,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said. “We have to go in there and hang in there and fight and try to make a run late see if you can put the game away.”

Before this season started, the Gophers brought in accomplished head coach Tubby Smith to rebuild the program, and he has the team close to breaking back into the field of 65.

Smith brings a long tradition of winning to a Gophers program that has not won much over the last decade. He chose to come to Minnesota after leaving Kentucky, where in his 10-year career he claimed a National Title with the Wildcats in 1998, made four Elite Eight appearances, six Sweet Sixteen appearances and qualified for 10 consecutive NCAA Tournaments.

He also posted 14 straight 20-win seasons starting from his time at Tulsa, and is attempting to lead the Gophers to their first 20-win campaign since 2004-05.

“Coach Smith has them playing hard, and his style of offense and defense has done well for them,” senior forward Brian Randle said.

Smith’s team is third best in scoring, averaging 72.9 points per game and shooting a conference-best 37.7 percent from three-point range.

The Gophers are led by their two seniors, who form one of the conference’s best big man-guard duos. Forward Dan Coleman and guard McKenzie Lawrence average a combined 24.7 points per game.

With the four-day layoff since the double-overtime loss to Indiana, the Illini said they are well-rested and prepared to get back on track and ready to find a way to win the team’s first Big Ten road game of the year.

“Every game is big for us, and we’re still playing college basketball, and we can’t get down on ourselves,” junior guard Trent Meacham said. “It’s what we’ve dreamed to play for even though the season hasn’t gone the way we’ve wanted it to. There are still games left, and it will be important to finish strong.”