Minnesota (6-13; 0-7 in the Big Ten) vs. Illinois (9-10; 1-5) at Williams Arena

Saturday, Jan. 23 at 7:30 p.m. CT

Radio: 1500-a.m.

The spread: Minnesota +2

Pregame reading:

Carlos Morris finally gives Minnesota a shot in the arm. Click.

Previewing both teams. Click.

This week’s Friday insider – No clear favorites this season. Complete with national notes and this week’s Big Ten power poll. Click.

On the blog: the Gophers are still “watering at the mouth” for a win. Click.

Three storylines to watch today:

Trending up. In the last two games, the Gophers have taken losses, but only by a combined 12 points. That’s not comfortable or applause-worthy, but it does point to the perception of improvement. But to really be trending upward, Minnesota has to be getting better, for the most part, every game. Can the Gophers maintain the same level of intensity at home against a team without an inspiring record or reputation? Can they get better in some small way? Can they come away with a win in the first of the conference schedule that’s felt truly within their reach? A step backward would feel  like a big disappointment considering the positive signs the Gophers have offered up since last weekend.

Illinois frontcourt. It might not seem so scary on the face of it, but the Illini have some weapons to consider. First, Mike Thorne Jr. just returned to the rotation on Tuesday after missing 11 games with a torn meniscus in his left knee. Of course, the Illini lost 103-69 in that game, but that had as much to do with a lack of perimeter defense than anything. Thorne did manage nine points and nine rebounds coming off the bench in that game – and by tonight he could hypothetically be stronger and less rusty. “When he’s in the game, they’re going to him,” coach Richard Pitino said. “We’ve got to be ready for that.” His presence adds size (he’s 6-11) to Illinois’ roster and a rim protector that the Illini were previously lacking. Beyond that, forward Malcolm Hill gets fouled at a very high rate and shoots 80.5 percent from the free-throw line, which could create problems for whistle-happy Minnesota.

Offensive attack. Last time out, we saw very aggressive and productive versions of both senior Carlos Morris and sophomore Nate Mason. Combined with the drive of freshman Dupree McBrayer, the Gophers’ offense looked a lot less cringe-worthy against Michigan. There was more movement, better attack, great balance and direction. The Gophers will never be able to sit at the perimeter and launch threes – they don’t have enough consistent shooters to win that way consistently – so they need to get into the lane and try to cause havoc that way. Illinois’ defense is almost as horrendous as Minnesota’s, if not worse in some areas, so there should be some opportunities.

My prediction: Minnesota comes out with a hearty effort once more and takes its first conference win.

Minnesota 67, Illinois 62