Opportunities Abound With Minnesota Visit

Illinois is inching closer to the number of victories needed to qualify for the NCAA tournament. They may already have it. But seeding is also important, so the three remaining games are vital for that purpose. After the way Minnesota destroyed the Illini in Minneapolis, the rematch will certainly not be a gimme.

Minnesota trounced Illinois earlier this season, 59-36. Coach Bruce Weber remembers it well.

"Minnesota had a mental edge; we had beaten them 20 in a row. Tubby (Smith) said we're gonna get old school down and dirty and guard the heck out of them. They didn't switch any defense. They play zone, they rotate, they'll scramble and trap you. They just said we're gonna out tough them. And that's what they did to us.

"Tubby has talked about keeping it simple, and they did that. They didn't let us get open looks or easy baskets. And now suddenly, even when you have an open one, you don't have the rhythm and the rim looks smaller. We didn't have that magic level you need to be at to make shots. And then we gave them confidence on defense. We've got to work ourselves to get open shots. That will be key."

Weber hopes the psychology of the game is reversed this time, figuring the embarrassing loss will fire up the Illini.

"I hope it helps. Any motivational edge you can get. If we had beaten them up there, I'd be a little worried. But they took it to us. It wasn't quite as embarrassing as Penn State because it was on the road, but we sure didn't play well.

"I hope it's an advantage for us. The mental preparation is important, especially when you get into the grind of the season like we are now."

Weber says the Gophers have modified their approach somewhat since the Minneapolis game.

"They have rotated one of the big guys out of their lineup. They'll both play. But they're a little more athletic with Damien Johnson and (Paul) Carter. Both are good athletes, good rebounders.

"(Lawrence) Westbrook is still playing well, but I think he's cooled off. The last time we played them he was coming off a huge game at Wisconsin and seemed to be pretty hot. They seem to be a little more balanced right now, at least in their numbers."

The Gophers are fighting for an NCAA tournament berth, so they will be driven to win the game Thursday. It will take a great effort by Illinois to hold them at bay. But Weber says a win would help the Illini a lot also.

"This is a huge week for us. Minnesota is most important. We cannot look by them. I hope we learned our lesson from the Penn State game. Even at home, we have to be at the top of our game.

"If we could find a way to beat Minnesota and get it to 11 (Big 10 victories), it would give us some breathing room with the rest of the pack and hopefully keep us in the top part of the league. And it would be another step toward an NCAA bid. At the same time, none of the three games left are gonna be easy by any means."

Illini players would rather forget the first matchup, but they can't. It festers inside, encouraging them to play hard to avoid a repeat.

* Mike Tisdale: "I try not to remember too much. We went up there and got it handed to us. We've got to be more focused and ready to play."

* Demetri McCamey: "We've got to focus on Minnesota. They beat us pretty good up there on their home court. We've got to redeem ourselves and play Illini basketball. We've got to play defense and control the things we can control."

* Trent Meacham: "The next three games are with teams that beat us the first time around. Minnesota really handed it to us up there. It wasn't a fun game for us. In the first half, we played pretty good defense and were able to stay in it. And then they made a run in the second half. We couldn't get much offense going. Hopefully, we'll come out with a better effort.

"They play great defense. We couldn't get much going and missed some shots. Hopefully, we'll attack it better."

* Mike Davis: "We're anxious to show we're a better team than we showed that night. They beat us pretty bad, and obviously I didn't play well. So I'd like to show what I can do."

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