Illini Put Streak On Line At Minnesota

Some things in life are difficult to explain. Among them is Illinois' 20 game win streak against the Minnesota Gophers. Spanning the last ten years, that streak has included a number of games in antiquated but loud Williams Arena. To win their 21st in a row, the Illini will need to overcome that hostile environment plus a much improved Gopher team.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber knows that all streaks must end, and he knows the team on the losing side becomes highly motivated to reverse history. He just hopes the streak continues awhile longer.

"Sooner or later, it's going to come to an end. All streaks come to an end. We can't control the past, we can't control history. The most important thing right now is the present and preparing for them. I'm sure they're talking about it. You hope it doesn't work against you, but sooner or later it is. They will be motivated and the balls will go their way. I hope it doesn't become a factor."

Playing in an old barn with an elevated floor and poor acoustics magnifies the challenge of the 17-3 Gopher team.

"It is not an easy place to play. Even when they haven't won they still had great crowds. It seems like that place is always full, it always has great energy."

Weber has great respect for Tubby Smith, Minnesota's second year coach.

"I know he's a good coach and gets a lot out of his guys. You can't have a better person. He's compassionate, he cares about our business, he cares about other coaches. He's done so much good. I still think he has a Foundation in Lexington that he works with his kids and wife. He's been a good role model for our coaching profession. He was the president of our NABC (National Association of Basketball Coaches).

"He's an established coach. What he did at Tulsa, then at Georgia. We got the chance to play him when I was at Purdue and he at Georgia. In his short time there, he had those guys to another level. Obviously, the National Championship and success he had at Kentucky. He's gonna get these guys to play at a high level."

The Gophers have no superstars, but they use their entire bench. They are using a number of younger players and have taken advantage of a fairly easy nonconference schedule to gain confidence and experience. Now, they are getting quality production from a number of sources.

"They play with Tubby's passion and Tubby's competitive nature. They do it by committee, they do it with numbers, they do it by just keep coming at you. They've truly bought into what he wants them to do. They rotate defenses, they push the basketball."

Junior Lawrence Westbrook (6'-0", 195) leads the Gophers in scoring with 13.9 points a game and 15.0 in conference play. But no other player is in double figures. Sophomore guard Al Nolen (6'-1", 180) compliments Westbrook. He is third in the Big Ten Conference with 5.2 assists per game and is 10th in the nation with a 2.97 assist/turnover ratio.

Junior Damian Johnson (6'-7", 195) has picked up his game considerably of late. He is tied for the team lead in rebounding. He leads the team in blocks and is second in steals.

Two freshmen big men have played a major role for the Gophers this year. Ralph Sampson III (6'-11", 220) and Colton Iverson (6'-10", 235) have both impressed Weber.

"I think Sampson's come a long way. When I watched him in high school and the summer circuit, he was just kind of another guy. Now, he's had to play a lot more minutes than maybe expected. That's helped him. He's getting more confident. He uses his body, he shoots the hook, he really is a shot blocker. To me, Iverson kind of came out of nowhere. Both have a good future, and both have some athleticism and some length."

Among Gopher reserves are sophomore Paul Carter (6'-8", 195), junior Kevin Payton (6'-5", 215), junior Travis Busch (6'-4", 220), freshman Devoe Joseph (6'-3", 170), junior Devron Bostick (6'-5", 210), sophomore Blake Hoffarber (6'-4", 200), and senior Jamal Abu-Shamala (6'-5", 210).

Abu-Shamala has the experience, Carter gives good energy and is a rebounder, Joseph is a three point shooting specialist, and Hoffarber is known for his long distance gunning despite being in a slump much of this season.

Smith has Minnesota playing an aggressive brand of defense, and he mixes things up according to Weber.

"They'll come at you with a lot of different defenses. They use a lot more press than they did last year. They'll use a diamond press, they'll go 2-2-1, they'll go man-to-man and kind of run and jump at you. They'll fall back into zone at times, and then at other times they'll play an aggressive man-to-man.

"They try to keep you off balance, disrupting you. At their place when it gets loud, it seems like they have six guys on the court. It's definitely one of the hardest places in the league to play because of how hard they play on defense."

Illini guard Chester Frazier has studied the Gophers carefully. He sounds like the coach who prepared the game plan.

"They've got some versatile parts this year. They have quick guards in Nolen and Westbrook, and they push the ball up the floor. Johnson is as good as anybody. They've got some new guys that come in. We've got to be ready to match their bench.

"They pressure the ball a lot better. Their full court pressure is a lot better. They run up and down the floor a lot more, and they go deeper. They only average 20-25 minutes per player, so they have fresh legs on the court. We have to be prepared to match their lineups."

Senior guard Trent Meacham is also aware of Minnesota's ability.

"They're gonna be real aggressive, and they rotate a lot of players in and out. They've got a lot of fouls to give. They're gonna play hard, and we've got to respond."

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