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John Groce

Game Preview: Gophers at Illinois 1/9/13

01/09/2013, 2:30am CST
By J.B. Bauer

John Groce's Illini dominated Ohio State on Saturday

The #8/#10 Minnesota Golden Gophers (14-1, 2-0) hit the road for the first time in Big Ten play to take on the #12/#13 Illinois Fighting Illini (14-2, 1-1). The tip is scheduled for Wednesday at 8pm CT and the game can be seen on the Big Ten Network. (Photo: Ben Woloszyn / US PRESSWIRE)

Kendrick Nunn

Kendrick Nunn heads an impressive 2013 recruiting class for the Illini. The Simeon HS (Ill.) senior played AAU with incoming Gophers Alvin Ellis and Alex Foster. Nunn also won gold for USA with '14 Tyus Jones. (Photo: Steven Maikoski / USA Basketball)

Game Preview: #8/#10 Minnesota (14-1, 2-0) at #12/#13 Illinois (14-2, 1-1) 1/9/13

The Gophers travel to Champaign for their first road game of the Big Ten season Wednesday night. Minnesota has won 10 games in a row, including two at Williams Arena to open up conference play. 

On Sunday the Gophers got off to a slow start against Northwestern and took a 17-14 lead into the break. In the second half the pace picked up considerably once the Wildcats fell behind by double digits. Junior Austin Hollins broke things wide open with 5 consecutive 3-point makes and finished with a team-high 19 points. Minnesota would go on to win 69-51.

Meanwhile, last weekend Illinois put a beating on Ohio State at Assembly Hall 74-55. Four Illini players scored in double figures and the team made 64.5% of their 2-point attempts. Illinois’ two losses this year came away from home: a neutral site loss to Missouri and a road defeat at the hands of conference rival Purdue.

Illinois has been better than last season due in large part to improved 3-point field goal percentages (on both offense and defense – for more on 3FG% as it relates to Illinois, see this preseason preview) and they’ve also helped themselves by taking better care of the ball.

Like Minnesota, Illinois has a relatively strong strength of schedule and if they’re able to finish with a 9-9 record in the Big Ten they should be in very good position for an NCAA tournament bid.

Despite their lofty rankings, the Illini aren’t a team that figure to be in contention for a Big Ten title. However, they have seniors playing significant minutes and are a team with strong 3-point shooting tendencies, both of which suggest they’ll continue to have nights on which they will outperform expectations.


The two teams have similar effective field goal percentages, but different ways of arriving there.

Minnesota is best when getting to the rim and will look to shoot a bit better than the 48.6% 2FG they shot against Northwestern.  The Illini have some shot blockers, but if the Gophers get their normal amount of dunks they should be fine.

For Illinois, they’re a team that shoots a lot of 3-pointers and 2-point jump shots. While the Illini have done well with 2-point attempts away from the basket and 3-pointers, their shot selection is such that they’ll shoot themselves out of some games (and into position to win others) over the course of the Big Ten schedule. 

A solid effective field goal percentage is key for Illinois. They’ve got some streaky offensive players and Minnesota can’t allow a career day from one of them.


Give a slight edge to Illinois here because the Gophers continue to give the ball away frequently, but keep an eye on Tracy Abrams. With more experience the Illini players have lowered their turnover rates this season, but both Paul and especially Abrams are susceptible to brutal stretches of miscues.

Minnesota’s defense should be able to match up well against the Illini offense and frustrate their ball handlers. 


Minnesota gets the nod here because of their offensive rebounding, which has been by far the best in the nation this season. Meyers Leonard is now with the Portland Trailblazers (averaging 4.7p & 3.5r, but currently out with a bad ankle sprain) and that leaves Illinois without a dominant defensive rebounder (at least as long as sophomore Mike Shaw – 19 minutes played all year - continues to sit on the bench). 

Transfer Sam McLaurin hasn’t been much help on the d-boards and it’s been mostly rebounding by committee for Illinois. A failure to keep Minnesota off the boards could very well be the Illini’s undoing Wednesday night.

The Gophers had their best offensive rebounding game of the year against Northwestern, earning 64% of their possible second chances. 


Minnesota has posted a higher free throw rate than their opponent in all but two games this year: a loss to Duke and the season opener against American. They should be the better team again in Champaign.  

Brandon Paul can draw contact, but as a team Illinois doesn’t get to the line often and tends to score their points away from the bucket.


Illinois is led by experienced senior guards Brandon Paul (18.5p, 5.1r, 3.5a, 37.6% 3FG) and D.J. Richardson (10.6p, 4.7r). Combined they have logged more than 6,600 minutes and scored over 2,500 points at Illinois.

Paul is a big time scorer who has reached double-figures in every game this season, but also leads the team in rebounds and assists per game. He can beat teams inside or out and is no stranger to a 20 point game (6 this year). 

Richardson’s shooting (46.1% eFG) has left a lot to be desired. He’s got range and will put up shots from behind the arc whether they are falling or not (36/114 3FG for 31.6%). If he can break out of his current scoring slump (has not reached double figures in any of the last 5 games), the Illini’s chances of victory will be greatly enhanced.

Tracy Abrams (12.1p, 3.9r, 3.4a) scored 27 points (helped by 13/15 FT) against Auburn less than two weeks ago, but more important than scoring against Minnesota will be smoothly running the offense and avoiding turnovers that help the Gophers score in transition. Abrams is not a high-volume 3-point shooter like many of his teammates, but is second in scoring. He's a solid, young lead guard that helps his team win.

Other Players to Watch:

•    Joseph Bertrand (9.3p, 4.5r) provides firepower off the bench. The junior guard has dealt with injuries in the past (he joined the program with Paul and Richardson, but a knee injury kept him out as a freshman), but has put in 22 minutes of work per game this year. Impressive player especially when he displays his athleticism. 

•    Forward Tyler Griffey (8.7p, 3.3r, 40.7% 3FG) has put up good scoring numbers for the year despite shooting 0/6 3FG in Illinois’ last game (Griffey was shooting 45.3% 3FG prior to playing Ohio State). The preseason preview of the Illini at suggested that Griffey, with an unproven scoring ability, could be a nice piece for Coach Groce even though 6’9” senior came into 2012-13 having made only 27 career 3-pointers (31.0% 3FG). With 3 more treys, he’ll reach 27 makes for this season alone.  

•    Nnanna Egwu (6.6p, 4.3r, 1.4b) is a 6’11” sophomore who has shown flashes of how good he may become. Egwu had 16 points and 8 rebounds against Ohio State and is a good mid-range shooter, but is still growing into the player he can be. Egwu’s defensive rebounding has been weak and he often finds himself in foul trouble, but he has shown a promising level of progression.

•    Coastal Carolina graduate transfer Sam McLaurin (3.9p, 3.8r) is a 6’8”, 220 pound forward who has not had nearly the same impact scoring and on the defensive boards that he had last year in the Big South conference. Nonetheless, McLaurin is a solid reserve with plenty of experience who will try to help defend the basket against the Gophers.


•    Other talented sophomores on the roster include Myke Henry, Mike Shaw and Devin Langford. They may not see many minutes this year, but figure to be names you’ll hear often a year from now. 

•    Next season figures to be a challenge for Illinois with four of this year’s regular rotation players being seniors. Coach Groce has a fine class coming in next fall, highlighted by Simeon’s Kendrick Nunn, but the progression of the current sophomores will be of great importance.

•    John Groce has 99 career victories as a head coach entering Wednesday’s game.
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