ILLINOIS at GOPHERS
Three things to watch:
UNDERWOOD PRESSURE D – First-year Illinois coach Brad Underwood tried to implement his aggressive half-court man-to-man ball-pressure defense at Oklahoma State last season, but it was too much too soon. As a result, the Cowboys went 0-6 to begin Big 12 play. Underwood tweaked that plan overnight and went to a style better suited for his personnel, which reportedly meant guarding just above the three-point line instead of on the ball. But it was still heavy on ball denial. The adjustment helped turn things around and get OSU into the NCAA tournament with a 9-9 conference record. The Illini haven’t been a completely smooth transition for Underwood defensively, but he at least has a more athletic squad to pressure on the ball the way he wants. Illinois ranks first in the Big Ten and sixth nationally in turnovers forced per game (19.2). On Tuesday, Gophers coach Richard Pitino said the Illini “deny everything. Their big thing is no ball reversals. They’re really, really physical. They’re tough. Well coached. Well-schooled. They take you out of what you do and force you to play one-on-one.” Freshman Isaiah Washington could get the start again Wednesday, because senior point guard Nate Mason (ankle) is a game-time decision to play for the second straight game. Sophomore Te’Jon Lucas has started for Illinois in all 15 games this season, but expect freshman Trent Frazier to be putting the heat on Washington defensively for most of the game. Frazier, who has recorded four steals in a game three times this season, is averaging 17 points and 2.8 steals in his last five games.
PASS THE COFFEY – The Gophers are 9-0 this season when sophomore Amir Coffey has three or assists or more in a game. During their current four-game winning streak, Coffey is averaging 13.5 points and a team-best 5.8 assists. The 6-foot-8 former Hopkins standout might not play point guard, but he has the vision and passing skills of a floor leader. Good things happen when he has the ball with his size to see over smaller defenders, unselfishness and ability to be a threat off dribble penetration. Even if Nate Mason returns as soon as Wednesday from an ankle injury, he might not be 100 percent. Coffey’s ability to find his teammates good shots will be big for the Gophers against Illinois’ pressure D. Junior guard Dupree McBrayer returned from missing two games with a leg injury to score a season-high 15 points against Harvard. But Coffey, who has 20 assists and just three turnovers in the last three games, helped get him going by moving the ball and finding McBrayer for jump shots in rhythm.
OFFENSIVE BOARDS – Jordan Murphy no longer leads the nation in rebounding (falling behind North Carolina-Wilmington’s Devontae Cacok 12.6 to 13.4), but he still ranked No. 1 in total offensive rebounds (76) through Tuesday’s games. Murphy crashes the offensive boards like reckless abandon, sometimes grabbing two or three on a single possession if he gets denied at the rim. Illinois is the same way as a team. Wednesday’s game will be a matchup between two of the top offensive rebounding teams in the Big Ten and the country. Illinois ranks second in the Big Ten and 14th nationally in offensive rebounds per game (14.1), while Minnesota is third in the league and 17th nationally (13.8). Murphy can’t outrebound the Illini on his own, though. He’ll need help from starting center Reggie Lynch and others. Against Harvard, Washington grabbed a career-high 13 rebounds, including 10 defensive. It was the most rebounds for a Gopher guard since Austin Hollins had 14 vs. South Dakota State in 2013.
Time: 8 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Minnesota by 8 points. Series: Minnesota leads 64-114. Last meeting 68-59 Minnesota win at Illinois on Feb. 4, 2017. TV: Big Ten Network Online/Live video: BTN Plus Radio: 100.3 FM and 1130 AM
MINNESOTA (12-3, 1-1)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Isaiah Washington 6-1 Fr. 7.9
G – Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Jr. 8.8
G – Amir Coffey 6-8 So. 14.1
F – Jordan Murphy 6-7 Jr. 19.1
C – Reggie Lynch 6-10 Sr. 10.0
Key reserves– Nate Mason (questionable), G, 6-2, Sr. 15.5 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, So., 3.3 ppg; Davonte Fitzgerald, F, 6-8, Jr., 3.0 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Sr., 1.2 ppg; Jamir Harris, G, 6-1, Fr., 3.4 ppg; Gaston Diedhiou, F/C, 6-10, Sr., 2.8 ppg.
Coach: Richard Pitino 105-78 (6th season)
Notable: Jordan Murphy has streak of 15 straight games with a double-double, which is the longest to start a college basketball season since former Wake Forest and San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan had 17 straight in 1996-97. Murphy grew up idolizing Duncan living in the San Antonio area. His mother also was a huge Duncan fan since they both were raised in the Virgin Islands.
ILLINOIS (10-5, 0-2)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G – Te’Jon Lucas 6-1 So. 5.9
G – Mark Smith 6-4 Fr. 8.3
G – Mark Alstork 6-5 Sr. 6.6
F – Leron Black 6-7 Jr. 14.8
F – Michael Finke 6-10 Jr. 11.5
Key reserves– Trent Frazier, G, 6-1, Fr., 9.6 ppg; Kipper Nichols, F, 6-6, So., 8.6 ppg; Aaron Jordan, G, 6-5, Jr., 10.9 ppg; Da’Monte Williams, G, 6-3, Fr. 4.6 ppg.
Coach: Brad Underwood 119-32 (5th season)
Notable: Underwood has been to the NCAA tournament in his first four seasons at a Division I head coach, including three straight trips with Stephen F. Austin before taking over Oklahoma State last season … Illinois leads the Big Ten in percentage of minutes played by newcomers at 45.8. The Gophers rank 10th at 18.9 percent. … Leron Black is averaging 19 points and 8.7 rebounds in his last three games, which includes back-to-back 20-point performances against Grand Canyon and Missouri.
Fuller’s prediction (13-2 picks record): Gophers 76, Illinois 70. The last four opponents for the Gophers had a KenPom rating of 175 or higher. The last three times they played a top-100 rated team, the Gophers went 0-3 against Miami (Fla.), Nebraska and Arkansas. But two of those games were on the road and another against a top-10 Miami team when Minnesota played without starter Dupree McBrayer. The next two home games against Illinois and Indiana are the two most winnable games left on Minnesota’s schedule. The winning probability for both games is 80 percent, according to KenPom. So the Gophers can’t afford to slip up at all as Big Ten play resumes this week. McBrayer, who scored a team-high 15 points last week in a win against Harvard, is back from injury. If Mason can’t go Wednesday, Washington needs to play mistake-free and have his best game of the season to keep the Illini from pulling off the upset. The New York native scored 23 points combined on 10-for-34 shooting (29.4 percent) from the field with five assists and seven turnovers in two career starts this season. Not very encouraging. But Washington’s shooting percentage and assist numbers should go up if he takes better shots and looks for teammates more often. He has the confidence to play a bigger role, but Washington needs to realize he can’t be a one-man show.