Familiarity Breeds Contempt, Intrigue

Illinois and Minnesota meet for the third time this season in Thursday's opening game of the Big Ten Tournament.

CHAMPAIGN - Illinois coach John Groce was quoted as saying "familiarity breeds contempt" a handful of times during the second half of Big Ten play.

The idiom sufficiently outlines the Illini's matchup with Minnesota today in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.

The two teams played twice in the regular season, each winning on the other's home court.

At this point in the season, having played a total of 80 minutes and with countless hours spent researching and studying for the first two contests, neither team has many secrets left to draw upon.

"Scouting reports just go out the window," Illini senior Tyler Griffey said. "We know personnel, we know what they're going to run, they know what we're going to run. It's going to be a grind it out, just like most of these Big Ten games are."

Minnesota stunned the Illini in early January in Champaign, scoring 50 points in the second half and winning 84-67.

It was Illinois' first loss of the season at the Assembly Hall. Revenge came in February. The Illini, fresh off the upset of then No. 1 Indiana, won a tight, defensive battle 57-53 on the Golden Gophers home court.

One thing different about the Minnesota team Illinois beat then and the one that will be encountered today: Rodney Williams. The senior forward missed the second game due to a shoulder injury. Averaging over 10 points and five rebounds a game, his presence alongside forward Trevor Mbakwe is a concern, according to Groce.

"He's obviously a really talented player, an elite level athlete," he said. "Certainly changes their team. We'll have to keep him off the glass, you can't let him make highlight plays in transition. He's very versatile, is very good at driving the ball. Here lately I think he's done a very good job of driving the ball as we watch him on film. He adds another dimension to their team for sure."

In another personnel wrinkle, Illini sixth man Joe Bertrand will likely play despite a shoulder injury suffered last week in practice. It's unclear how effective Bertrand will be, but according to a source close to the team, he's not yet 100 percent.

Aside from Williams and Bertrand, not much has changed in these two teams. By March, you are who you are. With so much information known about the other, the pressure to execute offensive and defensive systems rises exponentially.

Illinois enters having lost it's last two games. Groce said he was proud of the toughness and effort displayed most recently at Ohio State, but pointed out issues dealing with execution that led to the loss. Still, he said, he likes where his team is at, physically and mentally, heading into the tournament.

"I like what we've done, I like where we're at. We've gotten better," he said. "I think our guys have shown some toughness at times, which is good. I'd like for us to be more consistent, but what coach wouldn't? We're going to continue to beat that drum all the way through to the end."

Minnesota enters having lost it's last two games, too. So, the teams are on equal footing in terms of momentum, if you believe in that sort of thing. They split the regular season head-to-head match-ups. Overall, Illinois won 21 games, Minnesota 20. Each won eight Big Ten contests, including victories against Indiana when the Hoosiers were No. 1 in the country. With teams built with completely different personnel and employing differing offensive sets and defensive systems, the two to this point have found similar results.

Thursday provides the tiebreaker.

"I think this time of year, I've said all along, conferences tournaments I think of toughness, I think of players making plays, I think being adaptable," Groce said. "Games are at different times, different venues. I think adaptability is important. And then I think making adjustments during the course of a game, trying to wrinkle some things, game management becomes important, trying to steal a basket or two because everybody knows what you're doing and vice versa."

After all, familiarity breeds contempt. And also intriguing basketball games.

Illini Inquirer Top Stories