Opponent Preview: Illinois

The Minnesota Golden Gophers host the Illinois Fighting Illini tonight at Williams Area. Tip-off is scheduled for 8:00 p.m. and will be televised by ESPN.

Illinois isn't the only Big Ten team struggling to win on the road, but it might be the only one that loses in similar fashion every time and doesn't seem able to change the pattern.

As Illinois prepares for a Feb. 10 trip to Minnesota, you have to believe the Gophers know the shorthand way to deal with the Illini: Get out to a quick start, withstand the runs and then help Illinois disintegrate down the stretch.

Through Feb. 5, the Illini were 1-7 this year in games that weren't decided until the final minute (including 0-3 in Big Ten road games) and it's remarkable how quickly they fall behind from the jump:

--In a 71-70 loss at Northwestern on Feb. 5, the Illini fell behind 9-0 in the opening 3:08.

--In Illinois' 52-49 loss Jan. 27 at Indiana, the Hoosiers hit two open 3-pointers in the first 40 seconds and led 11-4 after 3:38.

--In their 10-point loss Jan. 15 at Wisconsin, the Illini trailed 12-5 after 6:56.

--In their 57-55 loss Jan. 11 at Penn State, the Illini trailed 11-2 after 5:02.

Illinois sophomore guard Brandon Paul told reporters after the Northwestern loss that the team had tried multiple ploys to solve their road woes, including pretending they're playing at Assembly Hall (where they were 11-1 this season through Feb. 5). Illinois coach Bruce Weber went further.

"We came here early," Weber said in the Daily Herald. "We had (motivational speakers) talk to them. Everything except electric shock, I think, to get them all going. ... They've got to jolt themselves from inside."

The poor starts re-emphasize another damning statistic about this year's Illini. They'd won every game in which they'd taken a double-digit lead, but lost every game in which they failed to lead by at least 10.

In all of the four road games listed above, Illinois rallied to forge a tie or take the lead before halftime ... but the games' tones already had been set.

"It's a matter of being men, stepping up and welcoming the challenge, then figuring out a way to get a win on the road," Illinois senior forward Bill Cole told Gatehouse News Service. "It's tough in the Big Ten, but we have to find a way to do it to be successful."

NOTES, QUOTES

--In his continuing effort to find answers to his team's slide (five losses in the last seven games through Feb. 5), Illinois coach Bruce Weber has experimented with lineups and combinations more frequently than in the past.

Freshman forward Jereme Richmond returned to the starting lineup for the early-February split against Penn State and Northwestern, which shifted senior Bill Cole back to the bench. But after a poor first-half finish on Feb. 5 at Northwestern, Weber put Cole and freshman center Meyers Leonard on the floor to start the second half and sat Richmond and senior center Mike Tisdale on the bench. Leonard had never started a half.

Cole and sophomore guard Brandon Paul (29 minutes apiece) wound up playing more minutes than any Illinois starter except senior power forward Mike Davis (35 minutes).

"He's going to keep making changes to see how we get a good start off," Paul said in the Daily Herald. "And it's up to us as well."

--During the second half of Illinois' 71-70 loss Feb. 5 at Northwestern, first-team all-Big Ten point guard Demetri McCamey showed some flashes of extricating himself from an extended slump.

McCamey scored 12 of his 14 points during the final nine minutes as he helped Illinois rally from a 12-point second-half deficit. He tied his season low with six field-goal attempts, but he made four of them for his first .500 or better shooting performance since he went 4-for-6 against Northwestern on Jan. 6.

Overall, McCamey's numbers over the last five games through Feb. 5 were 9.2 ppg, 5.6 apg, 3.2 turnovers per game, 29 percent shooting and 36 percent on 3-pointers.

--Sophomore G Brandon Paul came off the bench to deliver a season-high 21 points against Northwestern. He hadn't scored so many points since the first game of his college career, a 22-point performance on Nov. 13, 2009 against SIU Edwardsville.

BY THE NUMBERS: plus-.093 -- In league play through Feb. 5, Illinois led all Big Ten teams in the difference between its own field-goal percentage (.478) and its field-goal percentage defense (.385). Top-ranked Ohio State was next at plus .055.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "For us, it's Groundhog Day. It's the same story whether we go to Wisconsin, Indiana, Penn State or here. Can't get behind. Can't start halves bad. We've got to get some consistency."—Illinois coach Bruce Weber, after the 71-70 loss at Northwestern on Feb. 5.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAMES:

--at Minnesota, Feb. 10

KEY MATCHUPS: The Illini get just one crack at the Gophers this year. Minnesota helped ruined Illinois' NCAA Tournament hopes last year by winning at Assembly Hall in late February, as the Illini shot just 32 percent. Minnesota's defense plays even better at home. The Gophers also figure to hold a large edge in the post with strongman Trevor Mbakwe added to the mix. Can Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale stand up to Minnesota's big boys?

PLAYER NOTES

--Senior PG Demetri McCamey jumped to second on Illinois' all-time assists list and fifth on the Big Ten's career assists lists. The NCAA's active assists leader owned 679 assists for his 128-game career through Feb. 5. His next Big Ten target: Purdue's Bruce Parkinson, who handed out 690 assists.

--Senior PF Mike Davis (820 career rebounds) moved into sixth place on Illinois' all-time rebounds chart. Through Feb. 5, he needed just 24 more rebounds to climb into second place.

--Freshman F Jereme Richmond earned his third and fourth career starts in early February. After producing three consecutive double-figure rebounding efforts, though, Richmond managed just four rebounds Feb. 5 at Northwestern. He compensated by handing out a career-high-tying four assists without a turnover against the Wildcats.


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