|Frank Williams celebrates after hitting the game winning lay-up in Illinois 67-66 comeback win over Minnesota in 2002.|
Last year in Williams Arena, the Illini could have best been described as the Brian Cook and Sean Harrington show. Brian scored 25 points and pulled down 11 rebounds while Sean scored 22 points on six three-pointers in Illinois' 76-70 victory. The game was also memorable because it marked the first Big Ten experience for Illinois' Dee Brown, Deron Williams, and James Augustine, who in typical freshman fashion combined for only 15 points and 7 turnovers.
As the Fighting Illini head up to Minneapolis this year, the game takes on a much different face. Minnesota is 0-8 in Big Ten play, and is led by arguably the best freshman in the country Kris Humphries. Illinois won its first road game in the Big Ten and comes in needing to steal another road victory before home games against Michigan State and Wisconsin if they want to dream of being in the race for the Big Ten Championship.
Many questions remain for this Fighting Illini team, the main one being: which Illinois team will show up on Sunday afternoon? Will it be the team that gutted out a tough road win in Bloomington, IN? Or will it be the team that was unable to win in Evanston, IL, and got blown out in Madison, WI? If the Illini are going to dream of attaining their third Big Ten Championship in four years, they will need to play with the same intensity they displayed in the second half against the Hoosiers on Tuesday night for the rest of the season.
On offense, the Illini are the opposite of Minnesota as they will use the same balanced attack that has them with four starters averaging in double figures (only Luther Head does not average double figures, he averages 9.9 points per game). The Illini's offensive attack may be balanced, but the attack is keyed by sophomore point guards Dee Brown and Deron Williams. When Williams and Brown are aggressive offensively taking the ball to the basket, they get the opposing defenses back on their heels, leading to easy baskets for the Illini big men, especially Roger Powell. Speaking of Roger Powell, he is the Illini's leading scorer on season averaging 13.1 points per game.
On defense, the Illini will once again this season lineup and guard the Gophers with a high-pressure man-to-man defense. Deron Williams and Dee Brown will key the attack from the perimeter, hoping to place enough pressure on Ben Johnson and Aaron Boone to keep the ball out of Kris Humphries' hands. When Humphries gets the ball in the post, expect Illinois to double team with the other big man, to either get Humphries to take and off balance shot, or make a bad pass.
The Gophers will show up and try to slow down and negate the Illini's superior athleticism by sitting back in a 2-3 match-up zone. This is the same defense the Gophers used to frustrate Wisconsin on Wednesday night, and if they play it with the same intensity they did in the first half in Madison all game, the Illini's offense will most likely become stagnant, playing right into the Gopher's hands. On offense, Minnesota has one threat and one threat only, Kris Humphries. Humphries signed a Letter of Intent to play at Duke last year, but he was released from his LOI when he decided to come to Minnesota, a place that would allow him to showcase his skills for the NBA. The transfer of Maurice Hargrow to Arkansas leaves the Gophers with only one other player that averages in double figures, guard Ben Johnson.
I can admit that I do not feel good about this game at all. I said on Tuesday night after the Indiana win that I just became more nervous about heading into The Barn than I would have been without an Illinois win in Bloomington. When you now combine that with Minnesota being 0-8 in the Big Ten, and having just lost to Wisconsin in a game they could have easily won, the signs are not pointing in the right direction for the Illini.
Sunday afternoon will be a game that shows if Illinois will have a hand in what happens in the Big Ten Championship race. The question that remains is which Illinois team shows up the one that played with heart and determination, or the one that crawls back into its hole when the first sign of adversity hits?