Illinois at Gophers men’s basketball

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

Old-fashioned shootout – Fans braving the record-cold (minus-50 degrees wind chill expected) weather Wednesday night to show up at Williams Arena should be treated to a shootout when two of the Big Ten's top scoring offenses face off. Coming off their highest scoring regulation game since Richard Pitino’s first season in 2013-14, the Gophers aren’t going to want to play an ugly, grind-it-out game Wednesday night against Illinois. In a 92-87 victory Sunday against Iowa, Minnesota scored 55 points and shot 65 percent from the field in the first half. Pitino’s team had to score early and often to keep up with the Hawkeyes, who have the No. 1 scoring offense (78.0 points per game) in Big Ten play. Minnesota (71.1) and Illinois (70.1) are also two of the highest scoring teams in the conference, ranking fourth and fifth, respectively. The Gophers should be more confident playing at home, but they couldn’t keep up with the Illini in a 95-68 victory Jan. 16 in Champaign. That was the most points in a Big Ten regulation game for Illinois since beating Minnesota’s 1997 Final Four team 96-90 at home 22 years ago. All six wins of the Illini’s wins this season came when they scored 70 or more points (6-6 record). Meanwhile, the Gophers are 11-0 when they’ve scored 70 points or more. First team to 70 points wins?

Rebounding battle – The Gophers surprisingly were dominated at their own game in the last meeting with Illinois. They had just one rebound in the first nine minutes of the game. After the smoke cleared, Illinois had beaten up Minnesota on the boards 39-26, which included 12 offensive rebounds and 20 second-chance points. Anyone saying they saw that coming is lying since Minnesota (fifth ranked at plus-4.1) and Illini (last in the conference at minus-3.0) are at the opposite ends of the rebounding margin rankings in the Big Ten. It came down to one team bringing more energy, effort and wanting the ball more. Hard to believe that can happen to a team led by Jordan Murphy, who leads the Big Ten (12.0) and ranks No. 2 all-time in Big Ten history in rebounds. Murphy had a season-low three rebounds in Champaign, but he responded by tying his career-high with 21 rebounds in a Jan. 19 win against Penn State. Murphy’s had three double-doubles since the Illinois game – averaging 19 points and 14.3 rebounds during that stretch. Daniel Oturu's return after missing a game with a shoulder injury should give the Gophers even more of a rebounding presence inside (he had 17 points and eight rebounds at Illinois). Eric Curry and Matz Stockman combined for just two rebounds vs. Illinois in 19 minutes, but they were a solid center rotation in Oturu’s absence Sunday.

Calm under pressure? – The Illini lead the Big Ten and rank seventh in the nation forcing 17.5 turnovers per game overall and 16.3 in league play. Minnesota had 15 turnovers in the previous meeting against Illinois’ intense ball-pressure defense. In the next two games, the Gophers had 29 turnovers combined going 1-1 against Penn State and Michigan (just think if they would’ve taken care of the ball in a buzzer-beating loss in Ann Arbor). Pitino was pleased to see his guys have just nine turnovers in Sunday’s win against Iowa, but it was concerning to see six turnovers come in the second half against a 1-2-2 three-quarter court press and trap. If you thought Iowa’s press was tough just wait until Wednesday night. Brad Underwood’s trademark pressure D forced 21 turnovers in an upset over No. 13 Maryland last weekend. Gophers junior guard Amir Coffey isn’t a one-man press breaker. Dupree McBrayerGabe Kalscheur and Isaiah Washington need to help Coffey get the Gophers into their offense and settle things down if the faster pace is causing too many mistakes. Coffey, McBrayer, Kalscheur and Washington combined for 11 turnovers in the last game against the Illini. Rebounding and transition defense will also be significant factors as well. Quick shots can lead to easy fast-break opportunities.  

GAME INFO

Time: 8 p.m. CT, Wednesday. Where: Williams Arena. Line: Gophers 6.5-point favorite. Series: Illinois leads the series 123-67.TV: Big Ten Network. Online/Live video: BTNPlus Radio: 100.3 FM.

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (15-5, 5-4 in Big Ten)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G- Amir Coffey 6-8 Jr. 15.8

G- Dupree McBrayer 6-5 Sr. 10.4

G- Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 Fr. 10.2

F- Jordan Murphy 6-7 Sr. 15.8

C- Eric Curry 6-9 So. 5.4

Key reserves– Daniel Oturu, C, 6-10, Fr., 10.2; Isaiah Washington, G, 6-1, So., 4.9 ppg; Brock Stull, G, 6-4, Sr., 1.8 ppg; Matz Stockman, C, 7-0, Sr., 3.1 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Jr., 2.1 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 123-97 (7th season)  

Notable: The Gophers rank fourth in the Big Ten in assists per game (14.3), but they had a Big Ten-high 25 assists on 32 baskets against Iowa. It was their most assists in a game since having 28 in the season-opening win against Nebraska Omaha. In his last five games, McBrayer has 26 assists (5.2 apg) to just eight turnovers, which included a career-high 10-assist performance against Rutgers … Curry started his second straight game this season on Sunday. The 6-foot-9 redshirt sophomore missed the first 12 games this season after having surgery on his previously injured left knee.

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLNI (6-14, 2-7) 

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G-Trent Frazier 6-1 So. 13.9

G-Ayo Dosunmu 6-5 Fr. 14.2

G-Da’Monte Williams 6-3 So. 4.2

F-Aaron Jordan 6-5 Sr. 9.1

F-Giorgi Bezhanishvili 6-9 Fr. 11.2

Key reserves–Andres Feliz, G, 6-2, Jr., 7.0 ppg; Kipper Nichols, F, 6-6, Jr., 6.9 ppg; Alan Griffin, G, 6-5, Fr., 2.9 ppg; Tevian Jones, F, 6-7, Fr., 3.8 ppg; Adonis De La Rosa, C, 7-0, Sr., 2.9 ppg.

Coach: Brad Underwood 129-59 (6th season)  

Notable: Ayo Dosunmu has scored 20 or more points five times in his last eight games. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 18.5 points during that stretch, which included 23 points on 9-for-13 shooting from the field against the Gophers. Fellow freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili is averaging 14.0 points and 5.6 rebounds on 56.8 percent shooting over the last seven games, which included 20 points and eight rebounds Jan. 16 vs. Minnesota. Dosunmu (15.8 ppg) and Bezhanishvili (13.0 ppg) are on pace to be the first pair of Illinois freshmen to be the team’s top two scorers in Big Ten play.

Fuller’s predictionGophers 80, Illinois 71. The Gophers are looking for revenge after arguably the worst loss in the Pitino era in that 27-point clobbering two weeks ago in Champaign. Both teams appear to be different since the last time they met. Minnesota has shown a lot more toughness and scoring ability, especially in Sunday’s win over Iowa. Illinois proved the win against the Gophers wasn’t a fluke by upsetting Maryland in New York. Throw the records out the window as they say, because this game will be closer than it should with a 15-win team facing a six-win team at home. But Pitino and his staff should have a game plan now to handle the Illinois pressure.

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