Two weeks ago, in a season that had been filled with exhilarating wins and humbling defeats, the Minnesota Golden Gophers hit a different type of low in a loss at Illinois.
Their 95-68 setback on Jan. 16 against the previously winless-in-conference Fighting Illini exposed the Gophers on the defensive end and sent their record back to 3-3 in the conference. They meet again Wednesday night at Williams Arena with frigid temperatures outside.
As painful as it is, the Gophers have rewatched the tape several times to learn from the blowout in Champaign. Minnesota lacked toughness in that loss to Illinois, repeatedly getting outmuscled near the basket. As a result, they trailed 51-28 at halftime.
“We weren’t competing on the glass,” said senior Dupree McBrayer, “and it gave them all the confidence in the world, ‘Hey, let’s just bully them on the inside and take away their spirit.'”
The loss two weeks ago was eye-opening, but Minnesota is 2-1 since, with their one loss coming at the buzzer against No. 5 Michigan. Here’s how they can get revenge against Illinois in their first rematch of the season.
Put a Body on Giorgi Bezhanishvili
The Illini won the rebounding margin 39-26 two weeks ago and had a 9-1 edge in the first several minutes. Freshman Giorgi Bezhanishvili was a big reason why as he scored 20 points to go with eight rebounds — six of which came on the offensive glass.
“He physically took us to the woodshed,” said head coach Richard Pitino. “I think he got 10 points off of rebounds. He was just really, really physical with his moves, so we’ve just got to be tougher down there.”
The Illini have good size between Bezhanishvili and forward Kipper Nichols, while the Gophers may again be without center Daniel Oturu, who is a game-time decision (shoulder).
Interestingly, the win over Minnesota was the only game in which Illinois has won the rebounding margin in the last nine outings. It will help Minnesota to keep Jordan Murphy on the floor. He missed a long stretch in the first meeting due to foul trouble and ended the game with just three boards.
The Gophers were greatly dependent on Amir Coffey early in the Big Ten season as he averaged 23.4 points per game through the team’s first five conference matchups. His 2-of-13 shooting on Jan. 16 depleted Minnesota’s offensive options. Combined with the Gophers’ inability to get stops or defensive rebounds, the offense never had a chance to get on the break, where it thrives.
Since then, Eric Curry has taken a big step in getting more comfortable off his return from injury. Gabe Kalscheur has upped his own aggressiveness. And Isaiah Washington had a clean performance in a win over Iowa as Pitino went with a deeper rotation.
Minnesota’s 92 points against the Hawkeyes was its best offensive output in a regulation Big Ten game since 2008, which it accomplished with better balance on the offensive end.
“We need balance, five guys on the court at all times that can score, make plays,” said Pitino. “I thought that you saw many times versus Iowa multiple people touching the ball and then something good was happening. We were getting post touches, kicking it back out. So I think with everybody, that’s starting to evolve, and it opens up the court.”
Minnesota recorded its most assists since the season opener in their win over Iowa (25). They only had eight helpers last time against Illinois. Once again, having Murphy on the floor, not simply as a rebounder, but as somebody who can pass out of double teams, will be key.
Guards Playing Defense
The other Illinois freshman, Ayo Dosunmu, will be the other tough assignment for the Gophers. He’s averaging 18.1 points per game over his last seven Big Ten contests and has shot 50 percent or better in five of those games. He scored 23 against Minnesota last meeting and went 3 of 4 from beyond the arc as the Illini shot 8 of 16 as a team from 3.
The Chicago product also turned the Gophers greatest strength against them in Champaign — running the floor. Now back at The Barn, Minnesota will need to get back to fast break basketball, where they are at their best. That means getting stops at the defensive end.
“Our transition defense was really bad [last time],” said Pitino. “Our half-court defense was bad, and I think it’s gotten a lot better since that game. If you don’t get stops versus them you can’t get out on the break.”
McBrayer, the team-leader in steals, may get a crack at guarding Dosunmu. He has at least one steal in 12 straight games.
Even more critical is defending the arc. The Gophers have been hit or miss at guarding against the 3, allowing opponents to shoot 40 percent or better in five out of nine Big Ten games. Minnesota is still amongst the conference’s worst in 3-point shooting offensively, so they’ll need to close out shooters like Dosunmu to win the battle beyond the arc.