An NCAA Tournament berth is definitely within Minnesota’s grasp at 15-7 with wins at Purdue, at Northwestern, among others (plus a second half schedule starting today that is not quite as challenging) but a loss today would be catastrophic. You can’t be considered an NCAA Tournament team if you are 3-7 in Big Ten play with a loss to a 13-10 team that is 3-7 in league play. Today the Gophers hope to end a five game losing streak that has included four losses in the final couple minutes.
Illinois is struggling. They’ve lost five of their last six games and the lone win was a home game against struggling Iowa. The Illini had a good non-conference season going 10-3 with wins over North Carolina State, VCU, BYU, and Missouri. Illinois has also beaten Michigan and Ohio State in Champaign. On their home floor Illinois is tough earning a 10-3 record (losses are to Winthrop, Wisconsin, and Maryland).
The Minnesota players had a team meeting last Monday as they spent a week preparing for this game. The meeting was led by guards Nate Mason and Akeem Springs who know this is a now or never situation. John Groce of Illinois and leader Malcolm Hill know that for Illinois this is also a desperate situation and that was apparent this week when talking to the media. Not just for post season hopes but for the future of Groce as coach.
Opposing bigs have feasted on Minnesota. Remember the following: 22 points and 10 rebounds for Nick Ward of Michigan State, 28 points and 22 rebounds from Caleb Swanigan, 15 and 15 from Trevor Thompson of Ohio State followed by 19 and 10 in the second game, 28 and 12 from Ethan Happ of Wisconsin, 28 and 10 from Justin Jackson of Maryland, and even Mike Watkins of Penn State put up 15 points and 15 rebounds.
Bigs, if you are hoping to have a big game in Big Ten play the Minnesota Gophers have been at your service. Illinois center Maverick Morgan, a 6-foot-10 245 pound center that Minnesota wanted under Tubby Smith, is averaging 10.2 points and 3.9 boards a game. Leron Black, a 6-foot-7 220 pound redshirt-sophomore who Tubby also went after, is putting up 9.1 points and 6.7 rebounds. Illinois beat Minnesota three times last year and one of those games saw Morgan explode for fast double figures in Williams Arena.
Maverick is a skilled player shooting 59 percent from the floor and 71 percent from the foul line. He generally scores about 4 of his 7 looks a game. Minnesota can contest that with Reggie Lynch IF he stays on the floor. In Big Ten play Reggie is scoring in double figures in EVERY game that he plays the 24 minutes or more. When he is under that minute total the Gophers have lost in league play every time. If he is at that 24-25 minute a game mark the team has always had a fighting chance (but he fouled out against Wisconsin and Maryland which led to a frontcourt open door).
Six-foot-6 225 pound senior guard Malcolm Hill is scoring 17.2 points a game for Illinois shooting 44 percent from the floor, 35 percent at the arc, and 80 percent at the foul line. Hill will take about 13 shots for Illinois with four coming at the arc. Hill also gets to the foul line about seven times a night. Hill is the only guarantee as an Illinois starter. He’s been in the first five every game but has seen nine different faces join him so far.
Minnesota needs Jordan Murphy to come out of whatever funk he’s in. This is a sophomore slump. After grabbing 21 rebounds (highest total at Minnesota in over 50 years) against Michigan State Murphy has played 216 minutes and grabbed 44 rebounds in eight games. Again, 21 boards in 42 minutes in the opener, 44 rebounds in 216 minutes since. A board every two minutes previously, a board once every five minutes since. And his ten points against Maryland was Jordan’s first double figure game in four weeks.
And Nate Mason. The shooting numbers since the historic 31/11 game against Purdue have been very ugly. In these seven games Mason is only 25 of 90 from the field. That will make anybody cringe (it’s only 27 percent).
Minnesota was in the game against Maryland but then two freshman bigs knocked out five threes each and those makes extended the Minnesota defense past their capabilities. Does Illinois provide that scare? Not really. Morgan has taken no threes, Black is 3 of 15. Six-foot-10 sophomore Michael Finke is a deep threat off the bench though so the Gophers need to be aware of that (scores a respectable seven a game in 19 minutes).
Reggie Lynch and his Big Ten leading shot blocking totals can without a doubt compete with Morgan, and Murphy can definitely play with fellow sophomore LeRon Black. These are even match-ups. That said the Gophers need Lynch to avoid early foul trouble and the Illini will go to Morgan in the post early and often. Lynch must avoid a foul in his first five minute rotation so he can play more physically the rest of the game.
Also, it’s time for Reggie Lynch to be a bit smarter on when he helps over to block shots. When his teammate has position he needs to stand down and stay on his man. It’s not feasible to ask Gopher guards to consistently be able to cover down and block out Reggie’s man, a center, consistently. The Gophers are giving up way too many offensive rebounds when Lynch rotates over to block/contest shots as sometimes Eric Curry or Jordan Murphy have had good position. Especially last game.
The guy to watch is Hill. Malcolm Hill against Amir Coffey at the three spot. It’s possible that Akeem Springs guards Hill and Coffey moves over to the 6-foot-3 Illinois gunner Jalen Coleman-Lands, or that in a week of practice Coach Richard Pitino has put in some zone, but the length on Hill would be perfect. Amir just needs to stay with Hill coming off screens. Springs is Minnesota’s consistent shooter so he and Coleman-Lands will be firing away, the question is which one will get the looks to hit (Coleman-Lands shooting 36.6% at the arc, Springs is at 39.8%).
Finally Nate Mason. Tonight he is going one on one at guard with Tracy Abrams who has also had his share of struggles at lead guard this season. Which of these players had the needed game to get a win? If one of them steps up I would bet on that team. Minnesota also needs more from Dupree McBrayer who has seen his production nearly disappear in the last two games. This is a guy who at one point this year played 35 plus minutes often and was their leading scorer for a time.
I feel like some type of shake-up is coming from Pitino. He’s had a week to get ready for this game. Maybe a different line-up, some new sets, or some zone defense. Something. His team needs it as they have to close out a game and get a win. It’s a must. My heart tells me this is the day. The week off only makes sense as the team will be focused and ready.
That said, the late game meltdowns, the struggles of Murphy, Mason, and now McBrayer, and at times some poor efforts and decision making, for this losing streak to stop, a lot of that has to stop. And it has to happen on the road in Champaign where Illinois has played well. I just don’t have any proof that Minnesota’s players are tough enough mentally right now to get this done. Maybe today they will turn it around, but I need to see it before I can have any confidence in picking them to win a game.
Illinois 76 Minnesota 74.