The Gophers (16-7, 5-6 Big Ten) face Illinois (15-8, 5-5) Thursday night at Williams Arena in a crucial game for both teams. The Gophers have lost three in a row and Illinois has lost five of its last seven.
Here are five questions related to the matchup:
Is Illinois the most disappointing team in the country?
The Illini aren't No. 1, but they're up there. Michigan State earns that honor. Kansas State, Tennessee and Baylor have all underperformed. But the Illini are certainly on the list.
Unlike the Gophers, they're healthy. They're one of the deepest teams in the conference. But Demetri McCamey has gone from Big Ten MVP contender to inconsistent point guard. In big games, especially road games, he doesn't always lead the way the Illini need him to lead.
Before the season started, I thought the Illini would be in Wisconsin's position right now. It seems like the talent is there but the execution has been absent.
Injuries and departures have contributed to Minnesota's challenges. What's Illinois' excuse? Entering Thursday's matchup, they've lost four consecutive Big Ten road games and they still haven't traveled to East Lansing, Columbus or West Lafayette.
Should Chip Armelin start at PG?
I think it's easy to look at Armelin's Sunday performance (14 points against the Buckeyes) and assume that he's the solution at PG. But I still believe the Gophers need an offensive push off the bench and he's given them that boost over the last three games (8.3 points per game).
Plus, he's a shooting guard, not a point guard. I think Tubby Smith will stick with Hoffarber's experience. It's one thing to experiment with a youngster on the wing, a different matter to put a freshman at point guard during this crucial stretch.
And Austin Hollins has been a defensive weapon for the Gophers. I think he's better as a starter.
I think Armelin can handle the ball. But he's found success in a reserve role.
Where's Trevor Mbakwe?
It's not just the statistical dropoff. Most players go through tough stretches. Mbakwe has 13 double-doubles this season, a sum that a lot of players don't record in a career.
But in recent games, he's lacked the energy that's become a huge part of his game.
Smith called him out Wednesday. Let's see how he responds against the Illini. The Gophers can earn an NCAA tourney spot before the conference tournament. But they need Mbakwe to be a consistent force inside to achieve that.
What are the pros and cons of Smith's 2-3 zone?
The Gophers are playing a lot of zone defense right now. The scheme allows them to continue to use their length to cut off passing lanes. They can trap on the wing. They can maintain their effective interior defense. And their length sets up the potential for deflections and steals.
Hollins has thrived in the scheme. He has eight steals in the team's last four games.
But with the zone, they're still vulnerable on the perimeter. And they're playing one of the top three-point shooting teams in the Big Ten Thursday.
How can the Gophers beat the Illini?
They have to start fast. Northwestern scored the first nine points in its weekend victory over its in-state rivals. They also built up an 18-7 lead.
The Illini haven't looked comfortable on the road this season. And it's up to the Gophers to make them uneasy Thursday.
The Gophers need more toughness and better passing from their post players. They have to limit their turnovers and pressure Demetri McCamey. He'll take tougher-than-necessary shots against pressure. Blake Hoffarber needs other wings to produce and take some of the attention away from him.
Prediction: The Gophers have struggled in their last three games, but they're a different team at home. I think the crowd will carry them in a tight victory over the Illini.
Gophers 63, Illinois 61 (I'm 19-4 this season)