Thursday, February 26, 2009

Gopher/Illinois Preview

I don't really want to preview this game, mostly because the two teams are pretty much unpredictable and wildly inconsistent. I read the previews at From the Barn and The Fourth Strike (newer Blogger who tackles the Twins and Gophers - big fan) and neither of them inspired me much for the same reason - nobody has a clue what is going to happen tonight.

I won't go into the Gopher inconsistencies, as I'm sure you are all too familiar with them, but instead take a quick look at the Illini.

Much the Gophers, part of the Illini's issues stem from an offensively challenged point guard, in this case Chester Frazier. He handles the point guard duties just fine, running the offense, getting his teammates the ball (leads the Big Ten at 5.4 assists per game), and taking care of the basketball (respectable 2.5-1 assist/to ratio). He just struggles with the scoring of the basketball. He shoots just 45% from the field and 38% from three, and even sadder, those are career bests. He's a steady point guard and is tough to keep from getting into the lane, but if the Gophers can limit his ability to find his teammates and force him to become a big part of the offense, it will go a long way towards a win.

Of course, Frazier doesn't score much because he doesn't need to. The Illini have four players averaging in double figures, and they do it from the outside (Demetri McCamey 11.9, Trent Meachem 10.2) and the inside (Mike Davis 11.0, Mike Tisdale 10.9). The Gophers were able to hold Illinois to just 36 points in their last meeting due to some tenacious defense. Sampson and Iverson out muscled the Illini big men all game, which led to a 40-26 rebounding advantage and Tisdale/Davis combining for just four points on 2-11 shooting. The held Illinois on the perimeter (McCamey/Meachem 13 points on 5-16 shooting) by playing tough, hard-nosed, no frills, big pressure defense. They were up in the Illini's shorts all game, in one of the most impressive defensive games I've seen out of any body.

Of course, that defense has seemingly disappeared since that game. Sure, the defensive effort against Northwestern was solid, but that's a whole different team. If they want a chance to win, they will need to at least come close to replicating that kind of defensive game, because chances are Illinois won't let them score too many points.

Oh yeah, besides all that offensive firepower (when it shows up) the Illini are the 6th best defensive team in the country based on defensive efficiency. They also only let their opposition shoot 29% from three point land, which is fifth in the nation, and just 44% from 2, also in the top 100.

Can the Gophers win? Yes. Two things need to happen:

1. Defensive effort. It's been missing since the last time these two teams played, but we know the Gophers are capable of it. I'm not saying they need to hold Illinois to under 30% shooting and majorly outrebound them again, although that would be nice, but the effort has to be there. From the previous Gopher game and the Penn State game, we know the Illini can be held down. Forget the press (their guards are too good anyway), forget the zone, just hard-nosed, tough man-to-man. Of course, in the game the Gophers won, they had only 10 total fouls called on them despite playing the in-you-face pressure man-to-man - I don't the refs are that forgiving in Champaign.

2. Forget the damn three pointer. Unless you're wide open. Stop with the passing around the perimeter all day long. Illinois is way too good of a defensive team to lose against the offense the Gophers have been running the last few games. Things were looking better against Northwestern, but that same aggressiveness has to continue through to this game. As your girlfriend said to me last night, "Penetration is the key."

So that's what needs to happen, but it won't. Even if they break out the pressure man-to-man, the refs are going to end up hamstringing them since they're the road team. And I have no confidence that will happen at all. McCamey and Meachem both get hot, and Tisdale kills inside. Illinois 73, Minnesota 55.