Illini basketball out for revenge against visiting Gophers

The Illinois men’s basketball team looked like it was guaranteed an NCAA Tournament bid following consecutive road wins at Northwestern and Indiana two weeks ago.

But after a sluggish 38-33 loss to Penn State on Jan. 18, the Illini were questioned by many experts and took dips in NCAA Tournament bracket projections.

Illinois players (22-6, 10-5 Big Ten) said they learned from the disappointing home loss to the Nittany Lions, and it showed Sunday at Ohio State, as the No. 20 Illini responded with a key 70-68 victory against the Buckeyes to remain in the top 25.

Illinois will need to be more prepared than its last home as Minnesota (20-7, 8-7 Big Ten) enters the Assembly Hall on Thursday night hungry for a resume-boosting win.

“I hope they’ve learned their lesson from Penn State,” Illinois head coach Bruce Weber said.

“Even at home, we have to be at the top of our game.”

Sophomore forward Mike Davis said the Illini cannot overlook any opponents for the remainder of the season.

“We’re not in (the NCAA Tournament),” Davis said. “We can’t feel like that. You want to feel like that, but you can’t. If we feel like that, we’re going to get crushed again and lose the rest of our games for the rest of the season. We can’t think that way. Minnesota’s fighting for their life. They’re trying to get in the tournament.”

Before the Penn State debacle, a 59-36 loss at Minnesota on Jan. 29 took the prize as the Illini’s most forgettable performance of the season. The victory helped the Gophers break a 20-game losing streak versus Illinois.

Minnesota outrebounded the Illini 40-26 and limited Illinois to 29.4 percent shooting, including 12.5 percent from three-point range.

But Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith said the Gophers’ victory over Illinois earlier in the season “means absolutely nothing” now.

After defeating the Illini, Minnesota lost four of five before routing Northwestern 72-45 in Minneapolis on Sunday. The Gophers have lost 10 consecutive games at the Assembly Hall.

“We know going into Champaign, it’s a tough place to play,” Smith said.

“Most teams have a lot to play for. They’re still in the hunt for a Big Ten championship.”

An Illinois win would secure a top-five seed and first-round bye in the Big Ten Tournament.

The third-place Illini are a half-game behind second-place Purdue and 1 1/2 games behind conference leader Michigan State.

Meanwhile, Minnesota will be looking to sweep the Illini in the regular season for the first time since 1996.

In fact, Illinois will be trying to avoid a season sweep in its three remaining regular season games as Minnesota, Michigan State and Penn State all defeated the Illini earlier in the season.

A win would also boost an already-notable NCAA Tournament resume. Though the Illini say they still have something to prove to the NCAA Tournament selection committee.

“The last three games are real big because we’re still not in the tournament,” sophomore guard Demetri McCamey said. “If we lose these three, people are going to be questioning, ‘Are they good? Are they not?’ We don’t want to have those things. We don’t want to be in the mix; we don’t want to be on the bubble.”