The Gophers’ biggest stretch of the year starts tonight against a very intriguing team.
No one really knew how Illinois would adjust this season after an incredibly disappointing end to 2011-12, when the Illini lost nine of their last 10 games (a la 2010-11 Gophers style). They had a new coach. Plenty of players had potential for improvement. But Myers Leonard was gone. There weren’t any real impact freshmen coming in.
So what were we to expect??
Probably not this – with Illinois at No. 12 in the AP rankings fresh off a big win over Ohio State. But indeed, the Illini have been very impressive for the most part early this season – they, with the Gophers, have made up the two biggest surprises in the conference. First, they won the Maui Invitational with wins over USC, Chaminade and Butler. Then they won at No. 9 Gonzaga, put up a good fight against No. 10 Missouri and of course, beat the Buckeyes by nearly 20 points.
In between was a mystifying loss to Purdue, but hey, true road games in the Big Ten are always tough to win.
So does that mean Illinois is for real? I think the jury is still out on that one a little bit. So far, I am impressed with a lot of what the Illini have done, particularly shooting at the consistently high rate that they have. Illinois is making an average of 9.4 3-pointers a contest and is shooting 44.2 percent from the field.
The concern for the Illini is whether that can remain as dominant an aspect of their game heading forward in Big Ten play, especially considering their comparatively weaker post game.
One of the Gophers’ bigger focuses tonight will be perimeter defense, an area where they have struggled. In the last four games the Gophers have allowed opponents to shoot a combined 33.8 percent from behind the arc – not a huge number, but one that bears watching tonight.
At the same time, though, the Gophers have made 36.8 percent of their own shots from range– so they haven’t exactly been lethargic on that end (um, remember Austin Hollins’ five consecutive 3-pointers against Northwestern?), although the total shots add up to just 21, compared with opponents’ 26.
Other notes on tonight’s matchup:
- Tonight starts the toughest three-game stretch of the year for the Gophers, who will head to Bloomington to play No. 5 Indiana on Saturday, and then return home to No. 2 Michigan. More on that stretch here.
- The Gophers have not officially started conference play 3-0 since the 1974-75 team did (the 1996-97 team did, but those records have since been vacated).
- Illinois has won 12 of the last 13 games at Assembly Hall against the Gophers, and are unbeaten there so far this season.
- The Gophers have averaged 43.8 rebounds a game in their last four contests, while Illinois has grabbed an average of 35.3 in that span. For a deeper look into their offensive and defensive rebounding, click here.
- Illinois coach is one win away from notching his 100th as a head coach.
- Illini leader Brandon Paul has scored in double digits in all 16 games this season. It’s the longest streak of his career, surpassing his 15 straight games last year. So far, the guard – who is averaging 18.5 points a game – is shooting 50 percent in Big Ten play.
*Watch tonight's game on Big Ten Network at 8 p.m. CT
*Listen to tonight's game live on ESPN 1500-a.m. I will be joining Tom Pelissero at 7 to talk Gophers pregame.
*From today's Star Tribune: Next three games pose a real challenge for the Gophers (plus video from Champaign!).
*Check out the Illinois-Minnesota matchup here.
*On the blog: this week's ever-growing aMAILia BAG ... and also, how to explain the Gophers' huge offensive and defensive rebounding discrepancy.