Gophers vs. Illinois: 5 things to watch for

Jace Frederick

Illinois did some damage to the Gophers a year ago. 

After Minnesota defeated the Fighting Illini in Champaign in early January, Illinois came into Williams Arena 57-53 on Feb. 10.

"It really stung," senior guard Austin Hollins said on Wednesday.

And just more than a month later, Illini guard Brandon Paul hit a jumper as time expired to beat Minnesota 51-49 and knock the Gophers out of the Big Ten Tournament.

Flip the calendar forward a year, and the Gophers (17-9, 6-7) are once again on the bubble, fighting for a bid in the NCAA Tournament. The Illini (14-12, 3-10) the come into Wednesday night's matchup at Williams Arena in last place in the Big Ten.

The Gophers are primed for payback.

Here are my five things to watch for: 

DeAndre Mathieu vs. Nnanna Egwu: The Gophers need DeAndre Mathieu to score. They're 6-2 in the Big Ten when he scores 10-plus points and 0-5 when he doesnt. It was clearly Mathieu's spark against Northwestern on Sunday, when he scored eight of the Gophers first 11 points of the half, that carried Minnesota past the Wildcats.

He makes Minnesota go. But, at times this season, the 5-foot-9-inch guard has been denied at the rim by lengthy shot blockers.

Insert Nnanna Egwu.

Illinois 6-foot-10-inch big man is third in the conference in blocks per game (2.2). He blocks 8.6 percent of shots while he's on the floor, according to KenPom.com. 

Egwu must have a big game denying Mathieu and his attempts to attack the rack if Illinois is to stay close.

Defending Rayvonte Rice: The Gophers shut down Northwestern star guard Drew Crawford on Sunday, holding him to two points on 1 for 15 shooting. Gophers head coach Richard Pitino credited Austin Hollins and freshman guard Daquein McNeil for shutting Crawford down.

"I take a lot of pride in that," Austin Hollins said. "Knowing that that's my matchup, I'm going to go out there and do the best job that I can."

That duo faces another stiff test on Wednesday night in Illini guard Rayvonte Rice. Rice ranks sixth in the conference in scoring (16.6 points per game). 

Rice is generally all over the court for Illinois, but wherever he is, you can bet McNeil or Hollins will be soon to follow.

Slow-Motion Basketball: It's been well documented that the Gophers really haven't been too fast this season.

Minnesota is 263rd in the nation in pace of play. Eight of the Gophers 13 Big Ten games have featured less than 70 possessions — and of the five that have had 70 or more, two of them were in overtime.

Don't expect anything different tonight. Illinois is actually slower than Minnesota. The Illini come into the night 301st in the nation in pace of play.

Gophers Defense: The likely slow tempo means the Gophers will have to defend for nearly the full 35 seconds every possession. 

As also has been documented this season, playing defense has been a problem for Minnesota.

But it has certainly improved of late. Two of the Gophers better defensive performances of the season were in recent wins at home vs. Indiana and at Northwestern, where the Cats shot just a shade over 30 percent. The Gophers have moved from last to 10th in the Big Ten in in-conference defensive efficiency.

The opportunity for another staunch performance exists on Wednesday. Not only are the Fighting Illini slow, they also haven't been very good on the offensive end. Illinois is 201st in the nation in offensive efficiency and 317th in effective field goal percentage (45.8%) — and both of those numbers have only gotten worse in Big Ten play.

Limiting Turnovers: The Gophers have committed 31 turnovers over the past two games — 19 of those were committed in the first halves of those games.

That's too high.

After the Northwestern game, Pitino seemed flummoxed with the mistakes.

"I don't know," Pitino said, while being quick to credit Northwestern's defense. "But then there were some other ones that were really, really silly."

Minnesota has to cut down on those miscues moving forward in order to gain more consistency in its play.

That starts on Wednesday night.

 

KenPom.com Prediction: Gophers 68, Illinois 60 (Minnesota has an 82 percent chance of victory)

Also, check out the rest of the Minnesota-Illinois coverage:

Daquein McNeil fills a vital role as a freshman: https://www.mndaily.com/sports/mens-basketball/2014/02/19/mcneil-fills-vital-role-freshman

Wally Ellenson leaves the basketball team, moves full attention to high jump: https://www.mndaily.com/sports/mens-basketball/2014/02/18/ellenson-leaves-basketball-program