Gophers at Illinois
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
LAST FIVE MINUTES– The biggest factor in the Gophers’ five-game losing streak is their inability to finish games. How bad has it been? They have a 3-47 record in four seasons under coach Richard Pitino when trailing with five minutes left, including 1-4 this season. The lone win this season came Dec. 3 in a 56-52 victory against Vanderbilt in Sioux Falls, S.D. Freshman Amir Coffey made two clutch shots in the last 95 seconds to help seal the comeback win, the first win after being down with five minutes left since 2015 (Minnesota went 0-21 in those situations last season).
LOST DEFENSE– Oh Where, Oh where has Minnesota’s defense gone? Oh where, Oh where can it be? Remember that old kids’ song about the little dog being gone. Was it ever found at the end of the song? I don’t think so. But in the Gophers’ case, they better uncover the defensive prowess that helped them start the season 15-2. Pitino’s team still ranks 14th nationally and second in the Big Ten in defensive efficiency. But Minnesota is seventh in conference games in field goal percentage defense (43.0) and seventh in three-point field goal defense (35.0 percent). What’s more concerning is that the last three opponents (Ohio State, Wisconsin and Maryland) have shot 50 percent or better from the field.
GO-TO GUY– The Gophers have three players who have taken the last shot to either win the game or force overtime this season: Akeem Springs, Nate Mason and Amir Coffey. Only one of them succeeded when Springs’ three-pointer sent the game into overtime in a 78-76 loss Jan. 21 at home. Springs missed a three-pointer in overtime to win the game, but it was a botched play when Bakary Konate failed to set a proper down screen. Moving forward, the Gophers likely need to figure out if Springs, Mason or Coffey is the go-to guy and feed him the ball in crunch time. Mason has the most shots (4-for-13) in the last five minutes of the five close losses in Big Ten play. Springs and Coffey haven’t shot the ball any better in that situation (3-for-14 combined).
Time: 3 P.M. CT, Saturday. Where: State Farm Center. Line: Gophers-Illinois even. Series: Illinois 122-65; Illinois won last meeting 85-52 March 9, 2016 in Indianapolis. TV: BTN. Online/Live video: BTN2go Radio: 1500ESPN.
MINNESOTA (15-7, 3-6)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Nate Mason 6-2 Jr. 14.0
G-Amir Coffey 6-8 Fr. 12.1
G-Akeem Springs 6-4 Sr. 9.9
F-Jordan Murphy 6-7 So. 9.7
C-Reggie Lynch 6-10 Jr. 8.5
Key reserves– Dupree McBrayer, G, 6-5, So., 11.1 ppg; Eric Curry, F/C, 6-9, Fr., 5.7 ppg; Bakary Konate, C, 6-11, Jr., 2.0 ppg; Michael Hurt, F, 6-7, Fr., 0.9 ppg
Coach: Richard Pitino 84-72 (5th season)
Notable: The Gophers haven’t beaten Illinois in Champaign since Tubby Smith’s final season in 2012-13. Fans might remember that game because it was a huge statement at the time when Minnesota thumped the Illini 84-67. It was a win that vaulted Smith’s team into top-10 status in the national rankings. In fact, the last two times Minnesota has won at Illinois it made the NCAA tournament that season (2013 and 2010). That could be an interesting nugget if it comes true again this year.
ILLINOIS (13-10, 3-7)
Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG
G-Te’Jon Lucas 6-0 Fr. 3.9
G-Tracy Abrams 6-2 Sr. 8.6
G/F-Malcolm Hill 6-6 Sr. 17.2
F-Leron Black 6-7 RS-So. 9.1
C-Maverick Morgan 6-11 Sr. 10.2
Key reserves–Jalen Coleman-Lands, G, 6-3, So., 8.6 ppg; Michael Finke, F/C, 6-10, RS-So., 7.0 ppg; Mike Thorne Jr., C, 6-11, Sr., 5.4 ppg; Jaylon Tate, G, 6-3, Sr., 2.7 ppg; D.J. Williams, F, 6-7, So., 2.5 ppg.
Coach: John Groce 175-127 (9th season)
Notable: Illinois was picked by some college basketball experts to be the surprise team of the Big Ten season this year, going from the bottom of the conference to the upper half. It made sense considering Groce had a veteran squad with talented pieces returning. The Illini have nice nonconference wins against North Carolina State and Virginia Commonwealth, but they are 1-11 (VCU win) against the RPI top 50 this season. In comparison, Minnesota is 5-8.
Fuller’s prediction (19-3 picks record): Gophers 72, Illinois 68. The Gophers had a players-only meeting Monday to air out all of the frustration about why they're suffering through a five-game losing streak. The common theme was not doing the “little things” to win close games. Rebounding, getting a loose ball or hustling to contest a shot. Those things can be just as important as making shots. If they can get back to making winning plays defensively, the Gophers will get back on track with a favorable home-heavy schedule remaining in five of their last eight games.