Gophers return home for rematch with Illinois

Charlie Armitz

For nearly a month, the GophersâÄô double-overtime loss at Illinois to open the conference season seemed to have been an ominous start for both teams.

After having numerous chances to beat the Illini, Minnesota lost its next three games while Illinois ascended to the top of the Big 10 with a 4-1 record.

Things have certainly changed since then as the two teams prepare for SaturdayâÄôs rematch at Williams Arena.

Despite MinnesotaâÄôs loss Wednesday to Michigan State, it has posted an equally impressive resumé as Illinois since losing at Champaign, Ill., on Dec. 27.

The Gophers won three straight games from Jan. 12 to Jan. 22, including a 77-74 upset of No. 7 Indiana.

The Illini recorded their signature win of the season Jan. 10 against then-No. 5 Ohio State, defeating the Buckeyes 79-74.

They followed that upset with back-to-back losses to Penn State and No. 25 Wisconsin and now ride a two-game losing streak into Minnesota.

Point guard Brandon Paul leads Illinois with 14.0 points per game but is shooting just 39 percent from the field. Off guard D.J. Richardson is averaging 12.7 points on 42 percent shooting.

Conversely, MinnesotaâÄôs starting guards âÄî Julian Welch and Joe Coleman âÄî had averaged 49 percent shooting before WednesdayâÄôs loss. Neither attempted a 3-point field goal in the GophersâÄô 75-52 win against Northwestern on Sunday, while Paul and Richardson made 2 of 7 shots from beyond the arc against Wisconsin.

The most crucial match-up, however, might be at center. Ralph Sampson III and Meyers Leonard went toe-to-toe on opening night with 22 and 20 points, respectively, but it was Leonard who came through in the clutch.

Leonard is averaging 13.3 points and team-bests in rebounds (7.8 per game) and blocks (2.0).