Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Game Preview: Gophers vs. Illinois

Huge sigh of relief.  I've been terrified of that Northwestern game ever since it morphed into a must win thanks to that three game losing streak.  I know I usually like to do the 10 things post after the game and get all nerdy and stuff, but there was a little bit of a Sunday Fun Day going on and with the game not being until five I didn't really super pay attention.  I know Jershon Cobb hit everything, Drew Crawford hit nothing, the Gophers and their turnovers are going to be the death of me, and DeAndre Mathieu is maybe the greatest Gopher of all time.

Up next is Illinois, another must win game.  The good news is that Illinois is terrible.  They've gone 3-10 in the Big Ten, and they started out 2-0 which, if my math is right, means they're 1-10 in the last eleven games.  They did beat UNLV and Missouri in non-conference play and were even ranked in the Top 25 at one point, but a once promising season has gone completely off the rails and I really see no need for the Gophers to do anything to allow any life to seep back into the Illini.  Kill them and kill them now.

Illinois's biggest problem is on offense, where they rank 11th in the Big Ten and 201st in the country in offensive efficiency.  Their problem, and this seems like an Illinois tradition at this point, is that they do nothing but shoot jumpers.  They take only 28% of their field goal attempts at the rim, a full 10% lower than the national average.  And they don't even replace these attempts with valuable 3-point attempts, but with 2-point jumpers (10% more than the national average here too).  This is a poor strategy no matter what, but it's even worse when you can't shoot.  They rank dead last in the conference in 3-point shooting (28%) and 2-point shooting (41%) and being that bad at both is pretty impressive.  Since they never drive to the paint they also rarely get to the line (335th in the country) so sometimes it gets awfully difficult for the Illini to find points.

If they're going to score, it's most likely going to come from 6-4 senior guard Rayvonte Rice, their leading scorer (16.6 per game) and one of a few players who might occasionally drive to the rim.  He's probably their best three point shooter (33% on 5 attempts per game) but he's also very tough inside (5.9 rpg) and can use his strength and driving to get to the line (four games with 10+ FTAs this season, including 2 of the last 4), and is a big reason the Illini can play four guards as often as they do.  He can score in bunches and has eclipsed twenty points four times in Big Ten play including 3 of the last 6 games.  Most of his damage comes against teams who struggle to contain guard penetration, so it's imperative the Gophers keep him contained out to the perimeter. 

Running the offense will be "point guard" Tracy Abrams who is continuing the Illini tradition of never having a good point guard (the curse of Chester Frazier) averaging just 3 assists per game (his assist percentage is ok, in fairness) and he's just a terrible shooter at 35% on twos and 27% on threes.  He's actually their second leading scorer at 11.2 per game, but did most of his damage outside conference play and has hit double figures in just 7 Big Ten games, and one of the last four.

The other two guards will likely be a couple of highly regarded freshmen in 6-2 shooting guard Kendrick Nunn and 6-6 wing Malcolm Hill, both of whom were ranking in the 60s as incoming freshmen by ESPN.  Neither has put up monster stats this year, but Nunn is started to get more involved having played 30+ minutes in each of the last three games and scoring 19 against Penn State.  Nunn had a rep as a shooter coming in, and although he's only hitting 33% this year you just never know with these highly ranked freshmen - they could nothing all year and then just explode, but hopefully he got that out of his system against Penn State.  Hill starts, but generally gives up most of his minutes to senior sixth man Joseph Bertrand.

The super athletic Bertrand kind of scares me because if the Gophers do that thing where they let guards drive into the paint over and over again he could have a monster game.  He's usually much better in a free flowing game, so hopefully the Gophers can play that lock down defense they break out from time to time.  I expect them to play zone given the Illini's difficulty throwing the ball into the basket, so expect Bertrand to try to exploit the gaps.  If the Gophers lose, Bertrand will have a big part in it.

In the front court Illinois goes with 6-11 league leader in Ns in his name Nnanna Egwu as their lone foward quite often.  Egwu is the super athletic jump around guy who blocks a lot of shots (2.2 per game) and can grab some rebounds (5.9 per game) but is pretty limited on offense (6.7 ppg on 41% shooting which is horrendous for someone 6-11).  Their two back up bigs are 6-7 senior Jon Ekey and 6-10 freshman Maverick Morgan.  Ekey is your float around the perimeter three point shooter guy (35% on 5 attempts per game), but for a three point specialist he's in the middle of a horrendous slump (5-21 last 6 games).  If Bertrand and Rice can find the gaps in the zone he's the one they'll be looking for spotting up behind the arc.  Morgan averages only about 8 minutes per game, but he'll likely see the floor a bit considering the Gophers will generally always have either Mo Walker or Elliot Eliason in the game, Egwu can't play all 40 minutes, and there is no way in hell Ekey can guard either of them.

Despite their record and everything I've written so far Illinois really isn't a pushover.  They're a terrible shooting team, yes, and they didn't break 40 points in their last game and have only scored over 70 points once in their last 11, but they also play good defense.  Not great, but good.  I expect the Gophers to keep Illinois to around 60 points, despite all the holes in the Gopher defense I don't think Illini can exploit them to score much more than that.  So the question is, can the Gophers score more than that?  I think yes.

Minnesota 74, Illinois 60.

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