The Illinois Fighting Illini basketball team is down, but they still have the chance to rally and recover. The Illini have five more games before the Big Ten Tournament, and if they are going to make any type of post season noise it’s imperative that they find their mojo so that they are playing their best basketball when Big Ten Tourney play gets underway on March 13th in Indianapolis.
The final five game push begins tonight when the Illini travel to Minneapolis to face the Big Ten’s 7th place team. The Minnesota Golden Gophers enter tonight’s game 17-9, and winners of 2 of their last 3 games. Their only loss in the 3 game stretch was an 8 point road defeat at the hands of #21 Wisconsin.
It’s no coincidence that Minnesota has found their way back into the win column just as their leading scorer, Andre Hollins (14.9 ppg), has returned to their lineup following a 3 game absence. While his production is certainly crucial to their success, it’s another player who has been lighting up the stat sheet for the Gophers that’s been the true difference maker.
Deandre Mathieu, a 5’9” dynamo point guard who is the second leading scorer for the Gophers (11.9 ppg), is coming off an 18 point, 4 rebound, 2 assist effort in Minnesota’s win over Northwestern in their previous game. He shot 7-10 from the field (1-1 from 3 point range), and 3-5 from the free throw line on his way to those 18 points, but it doesn’t stop there. In the Gophers last 3 games; Mathieu is 15-31 from the field and 11-14 from the charity stripe. Limiting Mathieu’s success should be priority #1 for the Illini defense tonight. If they can find a way to slow him down it should trickle throughout the rest of the lineup because he is the straw that stirs the drink for Minnesota.
Three Things I’d like to see tonight:
1. Defend for 40 minutes - The Gophers can really shoot it. As a team, they are shooting 44.7% from the floor. Get in their face all night long and contest every shot they decide to take.
2. Limit Eliason and Walker - The two post players for the Gophers aren’t offensive juggernauts, and there is no reason that Illinois should make them look like it because they get caught up trying to stop the Andre and Austin Hollins and Deandre Mathieu. Ekey, Egwu, and Morgan need to hammer the glass tonight and keep the Minnesota bigs from getting anything easy underneath.
3. Beware Malik Smith - It seems like there is always a random guy that shows up and hits big shots when the Illinois defense does a great job on all the marquee players. Yeah, I’m looking at you Marc Loving and you too, Tre Demps. Smith hasn’t been doing much on the offensive end recently aside from dropping 14 points in 16 minutes against Wisconsin 2 games ago, but he did hang 29 on Nebraska at the end of January so he has the ability to blow up if left alone. Don’t let Smith be the hero!
When: Wednesday, February 19, 2014, 8 PM CST
Where: Williams Arena – Minneapolis, Minnesota
TV: BTN (Directv 610 / DISH Network 439)
Announcers: Steve Physioc (Play by Play) and Shon Morris (Analyst)
Feel free to drop back in during the game and chat with me in the comments section below with any observations you may have!
You can follow Ryan on Twitter @RPKraemer.
Tags: Illinois Fighting Illini