PREVIEW: Illinois at Minnesota

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' chance to bounce back at Minnesota on Saturday night.

Illinois (9-10, 1-5) at

Minnesota (6-13, 0-7)

Date & Time: Jan. 23, 7:30 p.m. CT

Location: Williams Arena (Minneapolis, Minn.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Minnesota has lost 11 of their last 12 games since beating Clemson in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.
  • The Gophers (No. 193) are the fourth worst Power Five team in the Ken Pom rankings.
  • Minnesota is coming off single-digit losses to Michigan and Indiana.
  • The Gophers have the lowest field goal percentage (41.2) in the Big Ten.
  • Illinois is 119-65 all-time against Minnesota, but the Gophers are 46-44 against the Illini in Minneapolis.
  • The Illini fell 79-71 in last season's matchup at Minnesota.
  • Illinois has lost their last eight true road games.
  • The Illini are just 3-10 in their last 13 Big Ten contests.

Projected Starters

Jaylon Tate (JR): Tate had two points, five assists and three turnovers in 24 minutes at Indiana on Tuesday. He has 22 assists and eight turnovers in Big Ten play this season.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (FR): Coleman-Lands posted six points on a pair of threes at Indiana. He is shooting 38.9 percent from deep in conference games, while hitting at least two threes in five of the six contests.

Kendrick Nunn (JR): Nunn finished with 10 points, five rebounds, two assists and two steals against the Hoosiers. But he was just 3-of-11 from the field, which doesn't help a team that can't afford him to have an off-game.

Malcolm Hill (JR): Hill had a team-high 20 points to go along with five rebounds against Indiana. He has scored at least 20 points in nine of Illinois' 19 games this season.

Michael Finke (R-FR): Finke did not have a great showing on Tuesday with just two points and two rebounds in 24 minutes. He's had just one defensive rebound in the last three games combined.

Bench

Khalid Lewis (GR): Lewis had six points, one assist and one turnover in 17 minutes at Indiana. He is shooting 35.8 percent from the field this season.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne returned to action against Indiana after an 11-game absence. He was just 1-of-6 from the field, but he finished with nine points and a team-high nine rebounds in 16 minutes.

Aaron Jordan (FR): Jordan was an offensive bright spot on Tuesday with eight points, while hitting both of his long-range attempts. That was the most points Jordan had scored since Dec. 5 against Western Carolina.

D.J. Williams (FR): Williams was scoreless in six minutes against Indiana. He has played just 13 minutes combined over the last two games.

Maverick Morgan (JR): Morgan had two points and no rebounds in five minutes on Tuesday. He is shooting 57.8 percent from the field, but he has failed to register a rebound in each of the last two games.

Alex Austin (R-JR): Austin finished with four points, while going 2-of-3 from the field in six minutes at Indiana. That was the first game he made two field goals since late November against Chicago State.

Cameron Liss (SO): Liss played three minutes in the blowout loss on Tuesday. He has appeared in two games this season.

Minnesota Starters

Nate Mason (SO): The season has been a gloomy one for the Gophers, but they have a promising young point guard in Mason. The sophomore leads the team with 12.9 points and four assists per game. He is coming off a career-high 25 points against Michigan.

Dupree McBrayer (FR): McBrayer struggled to score in nonconference play by going 10-of-50 from the field, but he has improved on that of late. The freshman guard has posted nine points in back-to-back games.

Jordan Murphy (FR): Murphy has been a huge bright spot for Minnesota, as he has been one of the most productive freshmen in the Big Ten. He is averaging 10.6 points and 8.1 rebounds per game, while ranking third in the conference in rebounding.

Charles Buggs (R-JR): Buggs has been in and out of the starting lineup this season. He is averaging 6.7 points and 3.6 rebounds per game.

Bakary Konate (SO): The 6-foot-11 big man is averaging 4.7 points and four rebounds per game. Konate is also eighth in the conference with 25 blocked shots this season.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Execute on defense. The Illini are coming off one of the worst defensive showings the program has had in more than two decades. Indiana hit a school-record 19 threes on Tuesday against Illinois, and their other 18 field goals came in the paint. Head coach John Groce described his team's defensive performance as "atrocious". Illinois' defense has been a recurring issue all season. Out of 351 D-1 teams, Illinois is No. 332 in effective field goal percentage defense and No. 336 in three-point field goal defense. Heading into their 20th game of the year, it's time to find answers. This is the perfect opportunity to get it done. Minnesota has the worst field goal percentage in the Big Ten, and they've cracked 70 points in just one conference game. Meanwhile, the Illini are giving up an average of 80.5 points per game in Big Ten play. That is inexcusable regardless of injuries and inexperience.

2. Find offensive rhythm. Shot selection has been problematic for the Illini during the past two losses. They have lacked structure and ball movement, while instead reverting to "hero ball" and three-chucking. On Tuesday, the Illini took way too many shots early in the shot clock. They also looked like a team playing with playground isolation instead of an actual offense. Against Nebraska, the Orange and Blue settled for outside jumpers at an alarming rate. The Illini chucked 37 threes and made just 29.7 percent of those attempts. Groce has to get that corrected, and it starts with Hill and Nunn setting the tone on offense.

3. Show some fight. Groce was disgusted with his team's lack of toughness and pride on Tuesday. It is on him to get the most out of his players and establish the culture, but his leaders need to play the part as well. This team should be pissed off and ready to do something about it. This is a very winnable game for the Illini, but the Gophers are thinking the same thing. They battled Indiana and Michigan State at Williams Arena only to fall short. Those two teams beat the Illini by 59 points combined - granted both games were on the road. But the point remains the same. Groce has to show that he can push the right buttons with this team and find a way to win.

Prediction

The Illini still have two-thirds of the Big Ten season remaining, but there should be a sense of urgency to get things turned around now. Fans are already stirring about the future of Groce and his coaching staff at the end of this season. Perception is crucial from here on out, and this is simply a game the Illini cannot afford to lose. It will likely be a grind, but Illinois should bounce back with a much-needed win.

Illinois 71, Minnesota 68


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