This afternoon for lunch we went to this really cool authentic Mexican deli-type place where you could order our tacos or burritos or whatever you wanted with any one of a whole bunch of different meat choices, and I noticed that among those choices were beef tripe, beef tongue, pork stomach, and beef head. Now, I really like trying new foods - not that long ago I had wild boar with escargot as an appetizer - and usually if there's a new type of meat (to me) on the menu I'll give it a shot. I've never had anything like those, and I figured I could handle tongue because I know a lot of people consider tongue to be quite tasty, so that's what I was going to have. Then I got to the counter and I ordered the adobo carnitas. I'm such a sissy.
I opened with that because I have very little reaction to the loss at Michigan State because as I said in my preview post I didn't really care because I expected them to lose and the game essentially meant nothing as far as their NCAA Tournament hopes since I knew there was no chance they could pull an upset. And also because I missed 90% of the game running around getting my car stuff figured out and then a torturous experience picking up dinner for the family at Zantigo that took nearly 40 minutes somehow. But now the real season begins. Now it's do or die time, starting with Saturday against Illinois.
Illinois is on a two-game losing skid after dropping a home game to Wisconsin and a roadie at Penn State, but are still in pretty good shape at 15-5 and 4-3 in conference thanks to big wins over Ohio State and Gonzaga and only the Penn State loss sitting in the "bad loss" column, even if it is understandable to lose a road conference game. They certainly are ahead of the Gophers in the conference pecking order, but they may need this game as badly as Minnesota does because their next game is against Michigan State, and if they don't beat the Gophers they may be looking at a 4-game losing streak and sub-500 league record.
And make no mistake, Illinois can absolutely win this game. If the Gophers' home losses to Iowa and Purdue don't tell you they can lose at any time, Illinois's wins at Maryland and Northwestern and neutral site victory of Richmond let you know the Illini don't shrivel up and die on the road. Both teams are extremely evenly matched which you'd realize if you subscribed to kenpom.com and looked them up, so this one is going to come down to execution and mistakes, but if you wanted to take one thing to look at and concentrate on to decide how this game was going to go down, I'd point you towards the Illini's three-point shooting. Actually the #1 deciding factor will probably be if Tubby decides to give a crap about this game or not, but the 3-point shooting thing is definitely #2.
The Gophers' issues with defending the three under Tubby Smith are as well known as they are perplexing, but as a refresher they allow opponents to shoot 35.8% from three, which ranks 218th in the nation - not good. Normally I would say that's ok against Illinois because they're not a particularly good shooting team, hitting just 32.9% on the year (ranks #222) and no real great shooters, but teams continually get more of their points from three against the Gophers than they normally would, simply because they're open more often.
Plus, Illinois does have a tendency to fall in love with the shot and they have just enough mediocre, high-volume shooters that they have a high likelihood of somebody getting hot, and sometimes thats all you need. Like in the Illini's win over Ohio State when Brandon Paul completely lost his mind and hit 8-10 from three (he's a 35% shooter this year and that includes that game) en route to 43 points and basically won that game for them. D.J. Richardson was 4-7 in their win over Gonzaga. Sam Maniscalco was 5-8 in their win over Maryland. And most of their losses have come when they shoot too many threes and nobody makes them: 7-25 vs. UNLV, 4-16 vs. Missouri, 5-21 vs. Purdue, 7-22 vs. Penn State, and 3-12 vs. Wisconsin.
So that's your real key here. Hope they shoot a lot of threes (given the Gophers' defense this is likely), miss a lot (less likely), and hope nobody gets hot (even less likely). I have, of course, not mentioned the Illini's best player, center Meyers Leonard, but that's because he's gonna do what he does. He's gonna go for 12-20 points and 6-10 rebounds and that's that. I also expect that, because he and Ralph are similar, finesse type players who both lack the ability to just take the other out of the game, those two will cancel each other out like last time.
Other than the 3-point thing the other big thing the Gophers need to do is force turnovers. Illinois still struggles with point guard (as they have since Chester Frazier graduated) and rely on an undersized shooting guard (Maniscalo) , a small forward (Paul), and a freshman (Tracy Abrams) to handle most of their ball-handling. Abrams playing time has really increased since conference play started and I'd assume he'll get most of the ball work (he he) on Saturday, but he can be a turnover machine at times and struggled against the Gophers in Champaign (5 TOs).
Pressure on the ball-handlers and shutting down the 3-pointer are your keys to the game. If they can continue with the attacking, aggressive, get-in-the-lane offense they've showcased the last 3 games they'll be able to score against Illinois, but if they let the Illini get off from 3 and play that shitty stand around crapfense they did against Iowa and Purdue Illinois will win this game. As Fred Durst once said, you gotta have faith.
Minnesota 62, Illinois 56.