PREVIEW: Illinois vs. Minnesota

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper previews Illinois' matchup with Minnesota on Saturday.

Illinois (13-10, 3-7) vs.

Minnesota (15-7, 3-6)

Date & Time: Feb. 4, 3 p.m. CT

Location: State Farm Center (Champaign, Ill.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois has lost five of their last six Big Ten games.
  • The Illini are 15-13 under John Groce in the month of February during his tenure.
  • Groce is 6-2 against Minnesota with three wins against them last season.
  • Illinois 122-65 all-time against the Gophers, and 71-18 in Champaign.
  • Minnesota has lost five straight in Big Ten play after a 3-1 start.
  • The Gophers are 14th in the country in defensive efficiency.
  • Minnesota has road wins at Purdue and Northwestern.
  • The Chicago Cubs World Series trophy will be at the State Farm Center on Saturday.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas was scoreless in 26 minutes against Wisconsin on Tuesday, while going 0-of-4 from the field. Groce said he'd like his point guard to finish better around the hoop. But he has really liked the way he's defended recently.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands didn't start against the Badgers for undisclosed reasons, and he finished with six points in 24 minutes. He was just 2-of-9 from the field, and 2-of-7 from three. He is still shooting 42.3 percent from deep in Big Ten play.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill had 10 points and two rebounds in 35 minutes on Tuesday. He went 4-of-14 from the field and 2-of-8 from three, and it wasn't for a lack of open looks. Hill is two rebounds shy of 600 for his career, which would put him in the 1,600 points/600 rebounds club.

Leron Black (SO): Black had seven points and three rebounds in 13 minutes against Wisconsin. He has been hampered by a bicep injury recently. Black is shooting 39.7 percent in Big Ten play, and averaging just 6.8 points per game.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan posted 10 points and four rebounds on Tuesday. He also had two assists and two blocks. Morgan has converted on 57.5 percent of his field goal attempts in Big Ten play.

Bench

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams got the start on Tuesday in place of Coleman-Lands. He had four points and three rebounds in 19 minutes, while hitting one of his two attempts from deep. He's still shooting just 10.3 percent from three in conference play.

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke went 0-of-5 from the field in 12 minutes against the Badgers. He was scoreless with four rebounds. As usual, Finke's value is predicated on making shots.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Nichols had four points and two boards on Tuesday. He brings energy off the bench. Groce admitted that Nichols still doesn't always know what he's doing out there. But he uses his athleticism and competes.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate had two points, two assists and a turnover in 11 minutes against Wisconsin. He's played double-digit minutes in four straight games.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan appeared for three minutes and grabbed a rebound on Tuesday. He didn't play in the two previous games.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne did not play against Wisconsin. That was the third time he hasn't played in a Big Ten game this season. He's averaging 3.6 points and 2.4 rebounds against Big Ten teams.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams has sat out six of the last seven games. He's played a total of three minutes during that stretch.

Minnesota Starters

Nate Mason (JR): Mason leads the Gophers with 14 points and 4.5 assists per game this season. He takes a lot of shots, and he's not always the most efficient scorer. He's shooting 33.6 percent in Big Ten play. But he can get hot, as he did with 31 points and 11 assists in a win at Purdue.

Akeem Springs (GR): Springs has been a nice piece for Minnesota this season, and he's arguably been their best player the last few games. He had a season-high 23 points against Maryland last Saturday. He's averaged 18 points per game over the last three.

Amir Coffey (FR): Coffey is one of the best freshmen in the conference with 12.4 points and four rebounds per game in Big Ten play, while shooting 48.2 percent from the field. He has guard skills with a long, lanky 6-foot-8 frame.

Jordan Murphy (SO): Murphy has been a productive rebounder during his time in the Big Ten. He is averaging 7.5 boards per game this year. Murphy has struggled with consistency with his overall game, though.

Reggie Lynch (R-JR): The Illinois State transfer has provided a major boost in the post. Lynch is averaging 8.5 points and 6.1 rebounds, while ranking third in the country in shot-blocking percentage. He's struggled with foul trouble, though, as he's fouled out of six of Minnesota's nine Big Ten games.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. Battle on the interior. Minnesota has a formidable frontcourt with Murphy and Lynch. Can the Illini keep them off the glass? Lynch had 10 rebounds last Saturday against Maryland, which game him his double-double in Big Ten play. Murphy gets after it on the glass. He had 21 rebounds in the Big Ten opener against Michigan State. Meanwhile, Illinois allowed Wisconsin to grab 19 offensive rebounds on Tuesday. The Illini have been focusing in on defense, but cleaning the backboard is part of that. The possession isn't over until you grab the defensive rebound. On the other side, Morgan needs to be effective for the Illini offensively. But it won't be easy for him going up against Lynch. Is he able to draw Lynch into any fouls? That's not really his game. Illinois would like to get Lynch on the bench, though, because Minnesota is a different team without him. How effective is Black with his injury, and with his overall inconsistency in Big Ten play?

2. Can Illinois make shots? The Illini have shot below 35 percent from the field in four of their last five halves. They missed open looks against Wisconsin, while going 5-of-21 from three. That was against a team that was allowing opponents to shoot higher than 40 percent from deep in Big Ten play. Now, you have Minnesota, who has an elite shot-blocker in the post. But they also lead the Big Ten in three-point percentage defense at 30.9 percent. That's good for 23rd in the country. It helps that their wings have length and athleticism. Can Illinois get good looks and can they make them? Hill has problems creating space against athletic defenders. Coleman-Lands has been inconsistent. It starts with those two. If they can't get going, it could be a long day.

3. Who comes to play? Here you have two teams that haven't experienced much recent success. Adversity tests the character of a team. It's a new month, but the turn of the calendar reminds you of how little time is left until March. Minnesota is fighting for their tournament lives. Illinois is on life support. The Illini haven't played like a team with their backs against the wall. They don't really have that fight or that urgency -- at least in the sustained form. Truth be told, they don't have great leadership. That can certainly hurt you in a game like this. What is Minnesota made of? We will see.

Prediction

This game will likely be a grind. It's a toss-up battle. The Gophers still have that belief that they're a tournament team. They should come ready as such. It's hard not to question the belief, toughness, etc. on the Illini side. And if they lose this game, you might as well bury them. Probably should have the shovel ready.

Minnesota 70, Illinois 65


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