Illinois hosts Minnesota to begin its Big 10 conference schedule at the Assembly Hall Tuesday night. The Gophers lost star senior Trevor Mbakwe to knee surgery during their lone loss to Dayton, but Tubby Smith has great depth and has used it to advantage to keep on winning.
"They miss Mbakwe," Illini coach Bruce Weber states. "He's one of the best players in the country. I was with him a little bit with USA Basketball this summer, and he's about as good an offensive rebounder as I've ever seen on a daily basis on every possession. They miss that, but it seems they have regrouped and played very hard and competed."
Minnesota has depth both in the front court and back court.
"Minnesota is good team, an athletic team. Tubby plays a lot of guys. They play very hard, they defend very well. They've got good size. They could play with a couple bigs. Rodney Williams is one of the most athletic kids, not only in our league but in the country. He seems to have two or three dunks every game."
If there is a weakness, it is at point guard. Junior Julian Welch (6'-3", 195) is the team leader in scoring with 9.9 points per game and in assists with 2.5 per outing. But the junior college transfer is more comfortable as a shooting guard, as are his guard teammates. He shoots an impressive 44% from the arc.
Williams comes in at 9.8 points, 4.8 boards and 2.5 assists a game. The 6'-7", 200 pound junior hits 40% of his three point attempts in limited opportunities. Sophomore Austin Hollins (6'-4", 190) scores at an 8.7 rate and is also a good three point shooter. His freshman brother Andre (6'-1", 190) was Mr. Basketball in Tennessee last year.
Senior center Ralph Sampson III (6'-11", 241) is rounding into shape after some early injury problems. He is averaging 8 points and four boards per outing. Freshmen bigs Oto Osenieks (6'-8", 205) and Elliott Eliason (6'-11", 242) support Sampson.
Others who see playing time include sophs Chip Armelin (6'-3", 186) and Maverick Ahanmisi (6'-2", 175), and freshman Joe Coleman, Minnesota's Mr. Basketball last year. Ahanmisi started their last game.
The Big Ten lost a number of talented upperclassmen from last season, but it appears to be a powerful conference again this year according to Weber.
"The league has great depth. I've got to believe we will be number one RPI as a conference, which really helps you down the road if you have success. Each win means something. Holding home court is gonna be so important. Anytime you can find a way to get a road win, it will help.
"Some teams may shoot up, other teams may go the other direction. I think Ohio State is very good, but I don't think they'll be quite as dominant without (Jon) Diebler and (David) Lighty. I think they'll still be the class of the league, but I think some people will be able to find a way to nip them here and there.
"The rest, I think there will be a big log jam. Like the NFL, very competitive. A lot of competitive games, a lot of surprise games.
"We had six teams last week in the top 25. Minnesota was not one of them, and they were 12-1. When you look at the standings, a lot of teams with very good records. Indiana with no losses may be a little surprise.
"I thought from the beginning they would be a sleeper team. They're older guys, and they have bought in. They got the huge win against Kentucky, which gave them some confidence.
"After that, whether it's Minnesota with one loss or Ohio State, a bunch of teams with two losses. After a couple early losses, Michigan State has won 11 in a row, so they're a little bit of a surprise. We had unknowns, a lot of other people had unknowns, but those unknowns seem to have been answered."
The Illini have a major new force in sophomore center Meyers Leonard, who averaged 16.5 points and 14.5 rebounds last week to earn Big 10 Player Of The Week Honors. His rebounding totals were impressive, but Weber reminds he is playing too many minutes.
"At the end of the game, you're fighting for your life. You leave those guys in there, they tire down the stretch and they don't get the stops. I've got to give him a break here and there.
"He's the backstop to your defense, he's getting the defensive rebounds he needs to get. I'd like him to get more offensive rebounds. He has a tendency to drift out on the court, and then he's not a factor on the offensive boards. He's got to end up around the basket when we put up a shot. He's definitely asserted himself on the defensive end, rebounding well and protecting our basket."
Weber needs point guard Sam Maniscalco healthy and active the rest of the season. He suffers when the Illini play on short rest. His play against Missouri was limited by ankle stiffness.
"Sam hasn't shot it well. He's got to be our facilitator, he's got to be our leader. We had a hard stretch for him, three games in a six day period. If we keep him fresh during games, rest him off and on in practice, in games hopefully he can be the guy to get us into things and hopefully help with winning baskets.
"It was good to give him a couple days rest. He came back (Sunday) and said it felt a little better. He knows it's not gonna be easy. He'll have to have some mental toughness, grind it out and play with pain."
Reserve Joe Bertrand had a breakout game against Missouri. He might have earned himself the fourth guard spot in a small lineup, should Weber choose to go that route.
"Obviously Joe had a Superman performance. Hopefully it will give him a little confidence. The big thing he's got to do is let the game come to him, little pull-ups, straight-line drives to the basket to use his athleticism.
"When he messes with the ball, spin dribbles, gets into double teams...against good teams like Minnesota where they play good help defense you can't do that. It's boom, boom up, boom, boom pass. I hope Joe feels good about himself.
"I think we can (play small ball) at times. Joe was important to us in a couple of early wins against Illinois State and Richmond. Maybe if Joe continues to play well and shoots the ball well, we can mix it up and give teams a different look."
The Illini felt they should have defeated Missouri last Thursday, if only they had finished the game properly. They were frustrated by the loss, so it will be interesting to see which team shows up Tuesday night. If it is the one that battled Missouri down the stretch, it can send Minnesota home with a loss.