Minnesota Tall Task For Fighting Illini

The Fighting Illini basketball team has another road tilt ahead of it, this time at Minnesota Thursday night. Based on recent trends, few expect the Illini to emerge victorious. But they are still working to overcome their weaknesses while preparing for the Gophers, who's upset victory last year in the Assembly Hall gave them the NCAA bid the Illini sought.

Illinois has a tall task Thursday in Minneapolis, literally. Minnesota has a huge front line and expects to win despite the loss of their two starting guards. Illini coach Bruce Weber is leery of the Tubby Smith team.

"We've got a tough road game at Minnesota, a team that's very physical, very big and strong. We're a tall team, but they're a tall team with some physicality. It's been tough losing (Al) Nolan and (Devoe) Joseph, but he's continued to use whatever guys he can and get the most out of them."

Illini backs are to the wall. If they want to make the NCAA Tournament, most consider Minnesota a must-win game. The Gophers face the same dilemma and will be highly motivated to reverse a recent downturn.

"They're coming off three straight losses, difficult games," Weber reminds. "They played at Purdue and Ohio State at home, tough venues and tough teams to play against."

Senior shooter Blake Hoffarber (6'-4", 200) leads the Gophers with a 14.2 scoring average and hits over 40% from three point land. His 93 assists also lead the team. But he has found tough sledding since having to assume point guard responsibilities. His turnovers have increased and his scoring has suffered according to Weber.

"He's got to be a point guard, he's got to be their scorer, he's their leader and helping all the young guards come along. It's a difficult thing."

What Minnesota lacks in terms of guard play is compensated by a huge front line. Weber understates the situation.

"They have some physical presence inside, and it's tough to deal with."

Indeed they do. Junior Trevor Mbakwe (6'-8", 240) is averaging a double-double, scoring at a 13 point clip while leading the Big 10 with a 10.5 rebounding average. Illinois has no one to match his physicality and aggressiveness on the boards.

When the Gophers go to their biggest lineup, Mbakwe plays the three while juniors Ralph Sampson III (6'-11", 241) and Colton Iverson (6'-10", 258) man the inside. Sampson averages 10.9 points and 5.5 rebounds, while Iverson is the enforcer. Sophomore Rodney Williams (6'-7", 200) also sees plenty of time at a forward spot and is the most athletic of the group.

Illini senior Mike Davis understands the dilemma he and teammates Mike Tisdale and Meyers Leonard face in defending that big front line.

"They're big, they're physical. They've got Iverson, Mbakwe, Sampson. Those are big, physical dudes. Rodney Williams will dunk on you anytime, rebounds. Me, Tisdale, and Meyers have got to bring it. We've got to play the most physical we have all season. If we don't, they're gonna beat us on the boards."

Tisdale agrees.

"Minnesota has some pretty good big guys. It's gonna be interesting. It'll be a good matchup I think. We've got to be physical and fight, don't give in. Try to go at them. Physical guys get fouls sometimes. You've got to take it at them and see what you can do."

Freshman guard Austin Hollins (6'-4", 180) is averaging only 4.2 points a game on the season, but he has averaged over 11 points in his two contests since assuming a starting role. He is a quality defender. Minnesota expects him to hound Illini point guard Demetri McCamey.

Due to injuries and other problems, the Gophers have only 8 scholarship players available at this time. Freshmen Chip Armelin (6'-3", 186) and Maverick Ahanmisi (6'-2", 175) are raw but athletic. They don't score much, but they can explode if not guarded well.

While the Illini must focus on the Minnesota scouting report, they must also find answers to their road woes. They have been an entirely different team on the road than at home according to Weber.

"On the road, we have struggled in this last stretch of starts, whether it's scoring or stopping people. It's very disappointing that we can't match the energy level of our opponent at the start of games.

"We make comebacks and get back in the game both first half and second half. Now you've got to have the discipline to make the defensive stops, execute on offense. We have not done that. We had chances (against Northwestern) and just did not get it done again.

"I don't know if it's more effort, it's just tentative. We're just not moving. We put on a clinic first time against Northwestern. Coaches called me and said we did some things they never thought of doing.

"We show the film to the kids, we practice and execute. And we go up to Northwestern, and it was like we'd never seen their defense before. We're standing there."

Angry fans seeking vengence for the team not living up to their expectations want Weber to come down hard on his players. But the dynamics of team ball require a more conscious approach when dealing with sensitive egos.

"It's that fine line as a coach. You've got to be hard on them, tough on them, making sure we're doing the right things in practice and the games. At the same time, when you do lose, you've got to be careful. You've got to still be positive for them because they need you. That's the time they really need you.

"When they're winning and everyone's singing their praises, you've got to be a little harder. When they're struggling, you've got to be there. That doesn't mean you can give in. You need to be there and be positive with them."

Weber is considering all options, including lineup adjustments.

"I don't want to go crazy. We made some changes at halftime the other day; Meyers got to go. Brandon (Paul) got more minutes last couple games. I'm not sure yet. There could be, I don't want to say mass changes, but there could be some changes.

"They're all gonna play. Billy (Bill Cole) didn't start, but he played 29 minutes against Northwestern. I think too much is made of starters. Sometimes the bench can be a little jolt of reality and maybe get somebody's attention."

What Weber needs is for his troops to play with confidence, to let go of their self-doubts and fears and let loose. Saying it and doing it are too different things.

"It's gonna be important for us to come out and have a great start. And somehow, we've got to just play, just get after it. Play with some reckless abandon. I think I'd rather have that than to play tentative."

Perhaps the single biggest difference between the high-flying Illini team that began the season and now is the extended slump experienced by McCamey. Davis says the team relies on him.

"We depend so much on him to score. And he makes plays for us as well as himself. I think he'll be all right. He's been in a little slump; everybody goes through one. Hopefully he'll pop out of it soon because he's our best player."

Defensive breakdowns were prevalent in the Northwestern game. Sophomore guard Brandon Paul had a good game offensively but lamented his own defensive mistakes. He wants to make up for it this time.

"I'm gonna go in with the mindset to defend. Last game I had way too many defensive errors, and that's part of the reason why we lost. Whoever my defensive assignment is, I'm gonna guard him and limit his and the people around him's baskets."

Sophomore guard D.J. Richardson is starting to regain confidence lost during his recent shooting slump. He talks about the importance of the Minnesota game.

"It's a must win. The Northwestern game was a must win, but this game kind of determines how we will finish the rest of our season. We've to start the game with energy."

There may be a little pay-back working for the Illini in this contest. Like last year, it is the only time the two teams meet in the regular season. The Illini want to reverse the upset Minnesota laid on them at the Assembly Hall last year.

"Last year they came in and beat us at home, and they made the Tournament and we didn't," Tisdale remembers. "Hopefully we can go up there with the mindset the game is a tournament game, and we've got to win it."

Weber says the team is not willing to give up on it's season.

"It's not that we're done; we still can find ways. If we get hot at the right time, I think we can do a lot of damage. I guess hope is eternal, but you feel like you can make a nice run down the stretch."

Davis is more emphatic.

"This is it. I don't want to go out as a loser. I want to go out with a bang. Get back to the Tournament and make some noise. We've got two Top 25 teams we're playing this week. They're winnable games; we've got to come out with energy and start the games out hard. If we do that, we'll be fine."

Illini Inquirer Top Stories