Illini prepare for tough game at ‘The Barn’

Jeremy Berg The Daily Illini Illinois Brock Calvin dives for the ball against Minnesota on March 8 at Assembly Hall.

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Jeremy Berg The Daily Illini Illinois’ Brock Calvin dives for the ball against Minnesota on March 8 at Assembly Hall.

By Jeremy Werner

When Tubby Smith left Kentucky to take the head coaching job at Minnesota in March 2007, Bruce Weber said he had a moment of “double jeopardy.”

“It’s great for the league,” Weber said Tuesday. “But at the same time it’s bad for us and the rest of (the Big Ten) because you know they’re going to be competitive.”

Smith, who won a national championship as a first-year coach at Kentucky in 1998, has transformed the Gophers into a Big Ten contender in less than two years at the helm.

Illinois has won 20 consecutive games against Minnesota, a 10-year streak Smith called “mind-boggling.” But with Minnesota (17-3, 5-3 Big Ten) just a half-game behind No. 19 Illinois (17-3, 5-2) for second place in the conference, the Illini are preparing themselves for a superior Gophers squad than those they have played in the past.

“They’re really tough, and they’re that much tougher at home,” Illinois senior Trent Meacham said. “We can’t worry about who won the last game or whatever. That doesn’t really matter. This game is going to be a big game, and we got to be ready to go.”

The Illini have won eight straight at Williams Arena, also known as “The Barn.” But Illinois is 1-2 on the road in conference play, and Minnesota’s home court is unlike any in the Big Ten.

Standing since 1928, Williams Arena features a raised floor which makes it “feel like you’re on a stage,” Meacham said. The unusual setup in which the team benches and scorer’s table are below the playing surface forces visiting teams to adjust.

Like the Illini, Minnesota has had a better-than-expected season. But the Gophers have struggled lately, losing at Northwestern and at home against Purdue before narrowly defeating last-place Indiana on the road on Sunday.

Minnesota has relied on their entire roster for contributions, as 11 players average 10-plus minutes. Junior Lawrence Westbrook leads the Gophers with 13 points per game, while Al Nolen (8.3 ppg) and Blake Hoffarber (7.3 ppg) also pace the Minnesota offense.

“I always say they play with Tubby’s passion and they play with Tubby’s competitive nature,” Weber said. “They have truly bought into what he wants you to do.”

Illinois devoted a lot of time working against a full-court press and trapping in practice on Tuesday, expecting the Gophers to pressure the Illini ballhandlers.

“They just try to keep you off balance, keep disrupting you,” Weber said. “Then you get up there, and that place, it gets loud. It seems like they have six guys on the court at times, so that’s what we tried to emulate in practice.”

The Gophers lead the Big Ten in blocks (6.95 per game), led by two freshmen, 6-foot-10 Ralph Sampson III (1.70) and 6-foot-11 Colton Iverson (1.50) and junior Damian Jackson (2.29).

Mike Tisdale said the Illini will “just go at ’em” in the post. Smith said Tisdale and sophomore Mike Davis could give Minnesota’s young big men challenges.

“Their inside people are pretty talented and pretty gifted,” Smith said. “It does create matchup problems sometimes when you have mobile forwards.”

Senior Chester Frazier, who said he will likely defend Westbrook, has never lost to Minnesota and doesn’t plan on doing so during his senior season. But with Smith guiding Minnesota to a hot start in his second year, Frazier said the Illini can’t look past the Gophers.

“We had success against Minnesota, but they’re a different team this year,” Frazier said. “We can’t think it’s going to be an easy game. We have to come up there focused. We just got to be ready to win and play hard like we do at home.”