After registering one of the biggest upsets of the season on Thursday, the Illinois Fighting Illini will try to keep the momentum going as they pay a visit to the 18th-ranked Minnesota Golden Gophers for a Big Ten Conference clash.
Illinois started the year red-hot (12-0), but it promptly fell off the national radar by losing eight of its next 11 games. The Illini put themselves back on the map at top-ranked Indiana on Thursday however, mounting a comeback in the final minutes capped off by a game-winning bucket at the buzzer to claim a 74-72 victory, pulling to 16-8 overall and 3-7 in conference in the process.
Minnesota has put together a similar season to Illinois, as it started off by winning 15 of its first 16 games only to fall victim to the tough Big Ten schedule by losing five of the last seven. The Golden Gophers faced a difficult task on Wednesday with a road matchup against first-place Michigan State, where they fell by a 61-50 margin to drop to 5-5 in league play.
Illinois has a comfortable 116-64 lead in the all-time series with Minnesota, but the Gophers traveled to Champaign on Jan. 9 and handed the Illini an 84-67 defeat.
The Illini didn't appear to have much hope when they trailed Indiana by 10 points with 4:21 left to play, but it ended the game on a 15-3 run, which culminated in Tyler Griffey's game-winning layup as time expired that led to a court storming in Champaign. Illinois shot 44.8 percent from the floor in the thrilling triumph, and was paced by a pair of outstanding performances by backcourt mates D.J. Richardson (23 points) and Brandon Paul (21 points), who combined to shoot 7-of-15 from 3-point range. Griffey was also crucial off the bench with 14 points and eight rebounds. Illinois' offense is usually reliable, shooting 43.1 percent from the field for 72.2 ppg, but even though its scoring defense may seem respectable (67.2 ppg), it ranks last in the brutally tough Big Ten. Paul is one of the top scorers in the conference with 17.6 ppg, but he has more turnovers (74) than assists (70). Richardson shoots less than 38 percent from the field en route to his 12.3 ppg, and Tracy Abrams rounds out the double-digit scorers with 11.0 ppg.
Much like Illinois, Minnesota's offensive attack has been quite productive this season, the team shooting nearly 46 percent from the field for 72.2 ppg, but it was stifled in its latest game, making less than 37 percent of its shots en route to a lowly 50-point performance against Michigan State. Andre Hollins netted 11 points in the setback, while Trevor Mbakwe tallied nine points and 14 rebounds. Each of the starting five scored at least eight points, but the seven players who saw time off the bench combined for only four points. Andre Hollins usually leads the team with 14.0 ppg, doing a good portion of his damage from 3-point range (46-of-112). He also hands out a team-best 3.5 apg. Austin Hollins adds 11.0 ppg to the mix and is a playmaker at the defensive end of the court with nearly two steals per contest, while Joe Coleman (10.0 ppg) rounds out a strong backcourt trio. Rodney Williams (11.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.5 bpg) and Mbakwe (9.5 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.7 bpg) man the trenches for the Gophers, who score 10.8 ppg more than their opponents on average.