Men’s basketball returns to Big Ten action


Austin Yattoni

Illinois forward Leron Black (12) dribbles to the basket during the game against Grand Canyon at State Farm Center on Saturday, Dec. 30, 2017.

By Will Gerard, Staff Writer

Illinois travels to Minneapolis to continue Big Ten play against the Minnesota Golden Gophers Wednesday night.

Junior forward Leron Black leads the Illini frontcourt on offense. Black scored 20 points in the team’s past two games against Grand Canyon and Missouri, and he is averaging 14.8 points per game this season.

During Saturday’s 62-58 victory over Grand Canyon, the opposition began double-teaming Black after a quick start offensively, in which he made four of his first five shots from the field.

Black collected 11 rebounds, and finished with his first double-double of the season — the fifth of his college career.

“He made every right pass,” head coach Brad Underwood said. “I hope every team in America double-teams him because he’s got the ability to make other players better.”

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Similar to Illinois (10-5, 0-2 Big Ten), Minnesota (12-3, 1-1 Big Ten) relies on the presence of another undersized big man.

Junior forward Jordan Murphy leads the team in scoring at an average of 19.1 points per game, and he also averages a double-double at a mark of 12.6 rebounds per game.

Murphy leads the Big Ten in points and rebounds per game through 15 games this season, and his rebounding average ranks second in the country.

In a teleconference, Underwood compared Murphy’s style of play to NBA legend, Moses Malone, because of a similar knack for securing put-back attempts on his own missed shots in the paint.

“He rebounds his misses exceptionally well,” Underwood said. “A lot of times, he just puts it up there so he can go get it again and get a better look.”

Minnesota’s next leading scorer, senior guard Nate Mason, is listed as day-to-day due to an ankle injury. Mason averages 15.5 points per game. He did not play in a 65-55 victory over Harvard on Saturday, though he’s expected to see the floor against Illinois.

Freshman Isaiah Washington nearly recorded a double-double of his own in his second career start in place of the injured Mason. Washington scored nine points and secured a career-high 13 rebounds in a career-high 35 minutes.

Minnesota completed nonconference play at a record of 11-2, which includes an 89-84 victory over Alabama, who played three-on-five for 10 minutes in the Barclays Center Classic because of a bench-clearing brawl, and losses to Miami at home in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge and on the road against No. 22 ranked Arkansas.

The Golden Gophers split their back-to-back conference games with a 22-point home victory over Rutgers and a 10-point road loss to Rutgers.

Illinois also wrapped up nonconference play Saturday, however, the team is already 0-2 in the Big Ten after narrow overtime defeats to Northwestern (68-72) and Maryland (91-92) in early December.

“We dug ourselves a little hole, so to speak, but the one thing about conference play is that it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon,” Underwood said. “You have to do your job every single night.”