Pre-gamin’: Illinois vs. Minnesota

3:00 February 4, 2017

TV: BTN

Radio: 97.5 FM WHMS 1400 AM WDWS

Questions Worth Asking

  1. Will the Illini defense continue to show improvement? John Groce says he sees his defense getting better statistically, on film, and in person. Part of that improvement is spearheaded by freshman Te’Jon Lucas’s work on opposing ball handlers. Groce singled Lucas out in pregame comments, praising his improvement and his ability to keep the ball in front of him. The Illini defense has looked better of late, giving up 66, 64, 71, and 57 points in the last four games. Of course, there has been a lot of room for improvement. The Illini are still 11th in the conference in scoring defense, 13th in field goal percentage defense, 8th in three-point defense, 14th in blocks, and 9th in turnover margin. The Gophers aren’t exactly an offensive juggernaut, so the Illini may be able to get some traction on that end of the court.
  2. Can Illinois shooters find their strokes? Illinois has scored 70+ points just once in its last 6 games. The past two games have really been a struggle, as the Illini shot 41.5% at Penn State and an abysmal 27.6% against Wisconsin. Minnesota isn’t the team you want to play when you’re looking for buckets. The Gophers are 2nd in the league, holding opponents to 39.5% from the field. They lead the league in defending the three-point line, and don’t think you’ll get easy buckets in the paint, either. Minnesota also leads the Big Ten in blocked shots behind Reggie Lynch’s 3.1 per game, good for 4th in the country. To be effective against the athletic Gophers, the Illini will need to show better movement on offense than we’ve seen so far this season. This game could be a defensive struggle, and “struggle” and “defense” are two words we’ve used together often in reference to the Illini.
  3. Is there anything John Groce can do at this point to save his job? This is quickly becoming the only question most people are interested in discussing. Sure, he could suddenly get the team to play cohesive offense and defense, win out, and get into the NCAA tournament. He could also get a commitment from 2017 Edwardsville guard Mark Smith, whose stock is skyrocketing as bluebloods like Duke and Kansas start sniffing around. These accomplishments would surely make Josh Whitman’s decision tougher, but Groce has lost the faith of the fans, who aren’t showing up to the newly renovated Assembly Hall/State Farm Center. Has he also lost the donors? Sounds like many are ready for the program to move on. Even if Groce goes on a bit of a run at the end, it’s unclear whether it can – or should – erase the lack of progress we’ve all seen over the past 4.5 years. Groce’s situation will likely be the storyline from here on out.

Final Thoughts

Minnesota comes to town having lost 5 in a row. Coach Richard Pitino has publicly called on his players to make better decisions and support each other better through mistakes, especially late in games.  The five recent losses were by 18 at Michigan State, 2 at Penn State, 2 versus Wisconsin at home, 6 at Ohio State, and 7 versus Maryland. Minnesota also beat Northwestern at home and won at Purdue. The Gophers have a better resume than the Illini at this point, and that is reflected in their Ken Pom ranking of 42, nearly 30 points better than Illinois at 71. Minnesota is a better team, and they’ll make it hard for the Illini to score. That said, the home court matters, and the Illini are in desperation mode. This is a tough one to call, but I’m going with the Illini in a close one.

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