GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS AT NO. 19 ILLINOIS

THREE THINGS TO WATCH:

BIG TEN’S SHAQ – The closest thing college basketball has had to Shaquille O’Neil in years resides in Champaign. Shaq was 7-foot and 290 pounds as a junior at LSU in the early 1990s. Illinois freshman center Kofi Cockburn arrived from high school last year with those same measurements. Cockburn and the college-version of Shaq aren’t just similar in size. They both run and jump like guards but as powerfully built as big men at the next level. They have the footwork of players half their size. How do you stop a fast-moving tank that wants to destroy the rim with a ton of force? Not many opposing teams have figured that out. Cockburn’s won Big Ten freshman of the week seven times, including 22 points and 15 rebounds in a win at Purdue last week. In his last outing, the Jamaica native was held to just five points at Michigan. That might not happen again all season. But the Gophers have their own inside force with sophomore Daniel Oturu. He might be outweighed by 50 pounds, but Oturu combines the low-post skills of old school NBA big men with the perimeter game of the modern day stretch forwards. Will Thursday's matchup be like Shaq vs. Hakeem Olajuwon in the 1995 NBA Finals? Gophers fans probably hope so. The last time they met, Cockburn replaced Oturu (injured shoulder) on the Nike Hoop Summit playing roster in 2018. Oturu sat out the game, but he was representing Nigeria.

ATTACKING THE BASKET – The Gophers can’t afford to settle for jumpers anymore. They aren’t as good at three-point shooting as they expected to be this season. In Big Ten play, Minnesota ranks 13th in three-point percentage (28.0), but also can’t guard from beyond the arc, either. They are the worst in league games in three-point D (38.7 opponents). Sophomore Gabe Kalscheur and junior Payton Willis are the team’s top shooters, but they haven’t shot as consistently in the Big Ten. Kalscheur’s down from 41 to 33 percent after his freshman year. Opponents are primarily focusing on shutting him down from long distance. Willis hasn’t been 100 percent healthy since missing three games with an ankle injury earlier this month. If Kalscheur and Willis attack the basket more often they won’t be one dimensional. Richard Pitino wants his entire team to avoid being so trigger happy when opponents sag inside to limit Oturu. Willis is out for Thursday's game with a shoulder injury, but freshman Tre' Williams has the ability to slash to the rim. 

BATTLE ON BOARDS – Pitino was so furious with his team in a loss at Rutgers, he told his players they weren’t tough. They gave up 15 offensive rebounds in the first half. In the last three games, the Gophers have lost the rebounding battle each time out. Part of the problem is Oturu hasn’t been nearly as dominant on the boards. He hasn’t reached double figures in the glass in four of the last five games, including the last three. It might sound unrealistic to expect a double-double from him each night. But Oturu was grabbing well over 12 boards a game a month ago. Can the Gophers still compete on the glass when their star center is less dominant in rebounding? Sure. But it’s got to come from the guards, especially Marcus Carr and Kalscheur. 

GAME INFO

Time: 6:30 p.m. CT, Thursday. Where: State Farm Center. Line: Minnesota 5.0-point underdog. Series: Illinois leads series 115-66, but the Gophers won the last meeting 86-75 at home on Jan. 30, 2019. TV: FS1. Online/Live video: Fox Sports app. Radio: 100.3

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS (11-9, 5-5)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG 

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 190 So. 16.1

G – Tre' Williams 6-5 195 Fr. 3.5

G – Gabe Kalscheur 6-4 200 So. 12.0

F – Alihan Demir 6-9 235 Sr. 7.6

C – Daniel Oturu 6-10 240 So. 19.7

Key reserves– Jarvis Omersa, F, 6-7, So., 2.3 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Sr., 1.6 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, Fr., 1.6 ppg.

Coach: Richard Pitino 141-115 (8th season overall)  

Notable: Redshirt junior big man Eric Curry had successful surgery in the fall on a torn ACL in his right knee suffered during practice Oct. 7. The 6-9 redshirt junior hasn’t played a full season since his freshman year in 2016-17 after tearing ligaments in his left knee in 2017 and foot surgery last season. The last time Curry saw the court for the Gophers was with six points, four rebounds and two blocks in 13 minutes in a win at Northwestern on Feb. 28, 2019. Curry’s best performance last season was with 11 points and four rebounds in 25 minutes off the bench in a 65-64 victory against Penn State on Jan. 19 at the Barn.

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLNI (15-5, 7-2)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Trent Frazier 6-2 Jr. 9.9

G – Ayo Dosunmu 6-5 So. 16.2

G – Da’Monte Williams 6-3 Jr. 2.4

F – Giorgi Bezhanishvilli 6-9 So. 8.4

C – Kofi Cockburn 7-0 Fr. 14.5

Key reserves – Andres Feliz, G, 6-2, Sr., Alan Griffin, G, 6-5, So., 8.4 ppg; Kipper Nichols, F, 6-6, Sr., 3.8 ppg.

Coach: Brad Underwood 150-71 (7th season) 

Notable: Sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, who hit the game-winning jumper and scored 27 points at Michigan last week, is averaging 19.2 points and shooting 54% from the field in the last five games. Dosunmu had just six points on 3-for-9 shooting in a 86-75 loss Jan. 30 last year at Minnesota. But he scored a team-high 23 points in the 95-68 win Jan. 16 against the Gophers in Champaign … Illinois was ranked for the first time since 2014 when it cracked the top 25 earlier this month.

Fuller’s prediction (12-8 with picks): Illinois 71, Gophers 66

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