Luckily for the Gophers the Illini are on the skids despite an abundance of talent on a paper which, by the way, is not where the games are played. They pop up very well according to Ken Pomeroy's metrics where they are the 24th best team in offensive efficiency and the 25th best team in defensive efficiency, which leads to them being ranked as the 15th best team in the country, but they sure aren't playing like it, losing 5 of their last 7 including losses to Northwestern, Indiana, and Penn State.
A lot of their issues can be traced to Demetri McCamey, who may be starting to finally prove what I've been saying for years - he's not a real point guard. BOB COUSY AWARD FINALIST (L-O-freaking-L) McCamey has seen his play really tail off in those last seven games. He's shooting just 29% in those games after shooting 51% prior to that this season, and is hitting just 35% from beyond the arc where he was at 54%, and has seen his scoring average drop from 16.2 to 11.3 points per game. His lack of confidence has affected his aggressiveness, and if you take out a bizarre game against Wisconsin where he shot 21 free throws his FTA per game have dipped from 4 per game to 2 per game, including a 3-game stretch where he got to the line just once. His assists are down from 7.3 to 5.4 per game (3.9 outside the MSU game) while his turnovers are slightly up, and his steals are down about 50% as well. Simply put, he's a mess.
Such a mess that Brandon Paul has taken over the point guard duties at times towards the end of games, and he's not even a point guard and averages under 2 assists per game. He's a superb athlete and will probably end up being a damn good, possibly even great, player, but he's a wing - not a point guard. Unfortunately there are no other options.
It would be a shame if anybody liked Illinois, because there is a lot of talent here. Jereme Richmond might be the most talented freshman in the conference not named Sullinger or Armelin, D.J. Richardson is starting to come into his own as a gunner, and Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale form a near perfect tandem inside where Davis does all the dirty grunt work while Tisdale minces around about the perimeter knocking down threes and blocking a shot or two with help side defense. Even that dork Bill Cole can knock down plenty of three-balls if you don't guard him.
There are a lot of tough matchups here for the Gophers, and although I think Davis and Tisdale will struggle against the Gopher bigs I also think the slashing and scoring abilities of Richmond, Richardson, and Paul are going to give Minnesota fits. Those three can get to the rim and score mid-range, while Richardson and Paul are perimeter threats and all three are superb athletes. Seriously, you're going to see a lot of what Rodney Williams could/should/would be when you watch those three on Thursday.
However, as we are learning as Gopher fans, it doesn't matter how good the rest of the team is if nobody can get them the ball in the right spots, so much of the Illini success (or lack thereof) falls on McCamey, the "point guard." And, frankly, if the Gophers simply keep this one close and make it a wire-to-wire, down to the final possession affair odds are he'll shoot himself in the foot. Look:
2/5 vs. Northwestern: misses front-end of the 1-and-1 with :07 left. Turnover with :20 left. Illinois loses by 1.That is a lot of late game meltdowns for a supposed good team. And if it reads ugly it's even worse watching it.
1/27 vs. Indiana: 4 second-half turnovers, 0 second-half points. Illinois loses by 3.
1/22 vs. Ohio State: bad pass with 0:16 left, although the turnover was given officially to Mike Tisdale. Scores 2 points in the final 13 minutes. Illinois loses by 5
1/11 vs. Penn State: turnover as time expires, Illini don't get a final shot. Illinois loses by 2.
12/22 vs. Missouri: down 2 with 1-minute to play, Illinois gets outscored by 9 and loses by 11. Can't specifically narrow this one to McCamey, but as the PG he gets most of the blame.
12/18 vs. Illinois-Chicago: down 2, McCamey turns it over with :02 left to play after missing an open three-pointer with :06 left, Illinois's third miss in the final :15. Lose by 2.
Talent-level: advantage goes to Illinois, and both teams are basically head cases, so this one is very tough to call. The one big thing I keep coming back to is how are the Gophers going to run an offense with their guards going up against the athletic wings Illinois puts out there? So I figure we're looking at a narrow Illinois win. But then I realize that Illinois can't win narrowly, because they'll implode if the game is close, and I don't see an Illini blowout, so.....
Minnesota 67, Illinois 64.