Gophers men’s basketball at Illinois

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Handling the pressure — No question Amir Coffey has been the Gophers’ midseason MVP. With a Big Ten-leading 23.4 points per game in league play, he’s improved his scoring average nearly 10 points from nonconference games. As far as taking care of the ball, Coffey will need to be ready to feel the pressure Wednesday at Illinois. The Illini lead the Big Ten and eighth in the nation in opponents turnovers per game (17.8). Minnesota has gotten better at limiting turnovers recently (12.8 per game). There were two games this season when things really went off the hinges for Coffey playing point guard for the first time. Coffey had six turnovers in his third game of the season against Texas A&M in Vancouver. Coffey’s five turnovers weren’t as concerning in the win at Wisconsin on Jan. 3, because he was basically trying to put the team on his back when nobody else was stepping up in the first half offensively. Coffey isn’t a one-man press breaker. Illinois coach Brad Underwood’s trademark ball-pressure defense makes it difficult for even the best ball handlers. Dupree McBrayer and Gabe Kalscheur need to help Coffey get the Gophers into their offense. Rebounding and transition defense will be big factors as well. Quick shots can lead to easy fastbreak opportunities for both teams.  

Mighty Murphy — The Gophers should have a significant frontcourt advantage at power forward with senior Jordan Murphy aka the double-double rebounding king of the Big Ten. Ok, so I’m the only one calling him that, but you get my point. Murphy’s dominance on the boards (Big Ten-leading 12.1 per game) will be difficult to stop for Illinois who struggles in the paint. Illinois ranks last in field goal percentage defense (46.0) in the Big Ten and last in rebounding margin (minus-3.8). Getting Murphy touches inside early in the flow of the offense will put him in beast mode. That means getting to the foul line (he leads all major conference players with 8.31 free throw attempts per game) or dunking on their heads (18 dunks this season). You just feel like he’s due for a breakout performance after averaging just 10 points on 35 percent shooting in the first five Big Ten games. He broke a two-game slump scoring under double figures with 15 points on 3-for-12 shooting from the field (9-for-11 free throws) and 14 rebounds vs. Rutgers.

Bench support — The Gophers don’t have the deepest bench out there. But they did get a little more depth when big man Eric Curry made his season debut at the end of December after missing the first 12 games. Curry is now able to play 22-25 minutes a night. If he’s in foul trouble, then junior Michael Hurt and 7-foot senior Matz Stockman will be options at power forward and center, respectively. Pitino goes back and forth with playing either senior grad transfer Brock Stull or sophomore Isaiah Washington in the guard rotation off the bench. Stull had a couple clutch threes in the win at Wisconsin on Jan. 3. Washington was a season-best plus-21 with eight points, five assists and zero turnovers in Saturday’s 88-70 win against Rutgers.

GAME INFO

Time: 8 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: State Farm Center. Line: Gophers 1.5-point favorite. Series: Illinois leads the series 122-67, but Minnesota won the last meeting 77-67 in Minneapolis. TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (13-3, 3-2 in Big Ten)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 16.4

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 11.1

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 10.1

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 14.6

C- Daniel Oturu 6-10 Fr. 10.2

Key reserves– Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, So., 3.0 ppg; Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 5.2 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 2.1 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 2.1 ppg; Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 3.1 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 121-95 (7th season)  

Notable: Redshirt sophomore forward/center Eric Curry, who missed last season with torn ligaments and meniscus in his left knee, was out for the first 12 games this season after knee surgery before the season. Curry made his season debut with four points and six rebounds in 17 minutes Dec. 30 against Mount St. Mary’s off the bench. He had two points and five rebounds in 22 minutes last week at Wisconsin, and also four points, two rebounds, two assists and two steals in 23 minutes vs. Maryland. The 6-9 Memphis native averaged 5.5 points and 5.2 rebounds in 19.9 minutes per game on the U’s NCAA tournament team in 2017. Curry started at center in the Oct. 20 scrimmage at Creighton, but he was sidelined again after an MRI revealed cartilage damage with his previously injured left knee swelling. Curry’s mother, Audrea, is expected to be in attendance Wednesday to see her son play in person for the first time since the NCAA tournament in 2017.

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLNI (4-12, 0-5) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Trent Frazier 6-1 So. 14.7

G-Ayo Dosunmu 6-5 Fr. 13.6

F-Aaron Jordan 6-5 Sr. 9.1

F-Kipper Nochols 6-6 Jr. 8.6

F-Giorgi Bezhanishvili 6-9 Fr. 10.4

Key reserves–Andres Feliz, G, 6-2, Jr., 6.5 ppg; Da’Monte Williams, G, 6-3, So., 4.5 ppg; Alan Griffin, G, 6-5, Fr., 2.8 ppg; Tevian Jones, F, 6-7, Fr., 2.4 ppg; Adonis De La Rosa, C, 7-0, Sr., 3.2 ppg.

Coach: Brad Underwood 127-57 (6th season)  

Notable: The Illini are one of two winless teams in Big Ten play along with Penn State (0-6), but their five-game losing streak overall is currently the longest in the conference. Four of those losses were by single digits, including 68-66 at Northwestern. Illinois’ last victory was Dec. 15 against East Tennessee State 74-55 at home … Illinois freshman guard Ayo Dosunmu is averaging 20.5 points in his last four games, which included 23 points on 10-for-16 shooting, to go with seven rebounds in a 79-69 loss last week against No. 2 Michigan.

Fuller’s prediction: Gophers 78, Illinois 74. The Gophers woke up early last Saturday morning ready to play in the 18-point win against Rutgers. That was the first 11:30 a.m. start at home all season. Now it’s back to another late game. Totally different mind-set, plus this game is on the road. Having success away from home in the Big Ten once already with the victory in Madison earlier this month, Minnesota should be confident Wednesday at Illinois, especially the younger players. How Coffey, McBrayer and Kalscheur handle the Illini pressure to start the game might set the tone for the rest of the game.

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