Struggling Gophers will be desperate against Illini

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Struggling Gophers will be desperate against Illini

Records can be deceiving in college basketball. 

Minnesota enters Saturday’s game against Illinois with a 12-8 overall record, including a 1-6 mark in Big Ten play. From an outside perspective, the Gophers’ conference record looks bad. 

But take a closer look at their schedule, and you realize Minnesota is a dangerous team. Five of its six conference losses have been by five points or less, and Richard Pitino’s squad just hasn’t been able to close out games in the conference campaign so far. The Gophers’ lone Big Ten win came against Rutgers.

A 1-6 conference record for a team that entered this season with NCAA tournament hopes is a recipe for desperation, and Minnesota will be desperate for a win on Saturday afternoon when the Illini visit Williams Arena. Facing a desperate team on its home court is a tough task for the visitors, and Illinois is a team with enough problems of its own. 

Leading scorer Rayvonte Rice will miss his sixth straight game with a broken left hand, and shooting guard Aaron Cosby will miss his second in a row with an eye injury. The Illini roster is so depleted at this point that head coach John Groce is suiting up one of his student managers, senior Ryan Schmidt, for added depth as an insurance policy. 

The depth of the roster was one of Illinois’ biggest strengths before the season, and the reserves are now being called upon to keep the season alive as key pieces go down. In each of their three conference wins, the Illini have seen breakout performances from a player who stepped up in Rice’s absence. 

First, it was Malcolm Hill going off for 28 points in a win over Maryland. Kendrick Nunn dropped 25 in the victory over Northwestern. Most recently, Leron Black scored 15 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in Wednesday’s win against Purdue.

Hill, Nunn and Black will be key contributors for a long time at Illinois, but their team needs them to continue to mature into go-to players now if the Illini hope to make a run at the Dance. All three will be key to a possible Illinois win Saturday in a hostile environment.

Hill and Nunn have been consistently good enough to expect that they’ll excel against the Gophers, but Black is still a question mark. His potential has been budding all season, but defensive lapses and foul-prone play have kept it from truly coming to the surface until the Purdue game. Saturday’s matchup with Minnesota should be a good indicator of Black’s progression; if he can stay on the floor against the Gophers without fouling, there’s no reason he can’t have another large impact. 

Minnesota returns some familiar faces, and Illini center Nnanna Egwu will be tasked with containing big man Maurice Walker, who is averaging 12 points per game. Austin Hollins is gone, but Andre Hollins is still tearing it up for the Gophers, shooting 42 percent from 3-pt land and scoring nearly 14 points per game. Look for Joey King to play the “torch Illinois with crucial threes” role, much like Indiana’s Nick Zeisloft did last Saturday. 

Illinois (3-4 Big Ten) has fared better than the Gophers in conference play so far, but its overall record of 13-7 is similar. The Illini haven’t won back-to-back games since late December, and a win against Minnesota would keep their tournament hopes on a reasonably attainable path. This mid-January game is huge for both teams, because they want their games to still matter when the calendar turns to March. 

Minnesota has dropped 11 of 13 at Williams Arena to Illinois since 2000, so history is on the Illini’s side. 

But as Illinois showed Wednesday when it reversed Purdue’s recent dominance in the series, history means little when the teams take the floor. 

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.