Minnesota (12-8; 1-6) hosts Illinois today at 1:15 p.m. Watch on Big Ten Network or Listen Live on 1500-a.m.
In today's Star Tribune: Pitino, players battle through early season slump.
Five things to watch today:
Illinois' emerging rotation. The Illini, (13-7; 3-4) whom I expected to be a bit of a sleeper in the Big Ten this year, can't catch a break. Tracy Abrams tore his ACL before the start of the year. Rayvonte Rice broke his hand. Now Aaron Cosby is out too, with an eye injury. All of this means the rotation, in flux all year, is still there. Short on bodies, coach John Groce even promoted a manager to the team. But the Illini still have talent, especially in the frontcourt. Nnanna Egwu has been his typical shot-blocking self, and Malcolm Hill and Leron Black have both stepped up as the chips have fallen. According to Marcus Jackson of the Champaign Gazette, those three are expected to start along with sophomores Jaylon Tate and Kendrick Nunn in the backcourt.
Phasing out Elliott Eliason? In the last two games, the backup big man has played just seven minutes. Raw freshman Bakary Konate, meanwhile has played 30 after sitting for the previous four games. Is Pitino looking to the future? Is he frustrated with Eliason's frustration? The senior's play has dropped off significantly this season as his minutes have dwindled. At some point, it makes more sense to develop what will help you down the road. Perhaps Pitino isn't thinking that longterm yet. But three makes a trend -- does Eliason ride the pine again for most of the day today?
The basics. Things Minnesota struggles with: rebounding, turnovers, hitting free throws. Things Illinois is good at: defensive rebounding, not turning over the ball, hitting free throws. Are the Illini particularly apt at getting to the line? No, they're not, but they're one of the most precise teams in the country (No. 2 to be precise) when they get there. Minnesota, ranked 309th nationally, certainly does not want another game come down to a matter of free throws with this team. Illinois is a very good defensive rebounding team, meaning the Gophers won't get easy second chances. But the Illini don't get many offensive rebounds, leaving a window open for Minnesota in their biggest area of weakness. Illinois also has a tight team-wide handle -- and the fourth ranked offensive turnover percentage in basketball. The Gophers like to force steals, a disruption that becomes necessary when they're carelessly tossing around the ball on their own end. Who wins out?
Mason rebound. This is probably a testament to just how good freshman Nate Mason has been: his 1-for-5-shooting and one-assist, two-turnover "off night" at Nebraska stands out because we simply haven't seen him have bad performances. For a first-year player, that's impressive. Here's what else is: It was just the second game in which Mason's assist-to-turnover ratio was negative (the other also being a one-assist, two-turnover game vs. Seattle) and only the fourth time he's hit only one field goal in a game.
Avoid being the first streak. To say that the Gophers are struggling to get traction is an understatement. But Illinois hasn't exactly been the picture of consistency either. The Illini haven't won consecutive Big Ten games yet. Minnesota doesn't want to be the first to start the streak.