Tuesday Preview: Minnesota at Illinois

    
December 27th, 2011
After a day off college basketball is back with a small albeit important slate to keep an eye on. Why? The start of conference play in both the Big East and Big Ten, with more leagues due to join in on the fun later in the week. Tuesday's game of interest matches #24 Illinois (11-2), who is undefeated at home and looking to bounce back from their loss to rival Missouri, and a Minnesota (12-1) team that's managed to win six straight games. Many thought that the roof would cave in on Tubby Smith's team after losing Trevor Mbakwe for the year with a torn ACL, but guys have stepped up in his absence.

Before a five-point outing against North Dakota State on Thursday, guard Julian Welch (9.9 ppg, 2.5 apg) had reached double figures in eight straight games. He's shooting 48.8% from the field and 44.4% from beyond the arc, both which are improvements on his numbers as a freshman at UC Davis during the 2009-10 season. Andre Hollins (6.1 ppg), Austin Hollins (8.7 ppg, 2.0 rpg) and Chip Armelin (6.2 ppg, 2.0 rpg) are all players the Golden Gophers call on for production on the perimeter, and without a marquee scoring option they've adjusted their tempo some (267th in adjusted tempo per Ken Pomeroy).

Illinois will counter on the perimeter with D.J. Richardson (14.3 ppg, 2.8 rpg), Brandon Paul (11.3 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Sam Maniscalco (10.6 ppg, 2.9 apg), and freshman Joseph Bertrand stepped up with 19 points in the loss to Missouri. But the one issue with the three starters has been shot-making, with Richardson's 43.1% being the highest number. Paul's only making 36.7% of his shots from the field, and that's a number that will have to improve in Big Ten play if the Illini are to contend. The real key for Illinois will be to make sure they get their big man quality touches inside.

Sophomore Meyers Leonard has improved a great deal since last season, and he's second on the team in scoring (13.4 ppg) while leading the way in both rebounding (8.2 ppg) and blocked shots (2.4 bpg). One thing that's seemed to be an issue for the Illinois backcourt has been the art of the entry pass, and with Minnesota ranking in the Top 10 nationally in steal percentage (14.3%) Bruce Weber's team will need to be sound with the basketball. Minnesota will counter with Ralph Sampson III (8.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.1 apg) and the high-flying Rodney Williams (9.8 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 2.5 apg), and it's become even more important that they stay out of foul trouble with Mbakwe's injury.

However it's Illinois that's taken better care of the basketball to this point in the season, and Welch and Andre Collins both have personal turnover rates approaching 28%. Sound decision-making will be key for the Golden Gophers on the road, and even though school's not in session Champaign is a tough place to play. Minnesota's done a good job of getting to the foul line, as their lack of an outstanding perimeter shooter means that they've got to attack the basket more than most teams. Whichever team continues to attack the basket while limiting their opponent's opportunities will likely win, meaning that Illinois can't afford to fall in love with the jump shot.

Also in the Big Ten, Nebraska gets their first taste of league play as they host #14 Wisconsin. The individual matchup between Jordan Taylor and Bo Spencer will be fun to watch, and the Huskers are going to need a big night from Jorge Brian Diaz as well. In the Big East, surprising Providence visits St. John's in a game both teams need as the schedules get much more difficult in their next games (Providence visits Georgetown, St. John's visits UConn). And Pittsburgh looks to rebound from their loss to Wagner at Notre Dame, and it's a game-time decision as to whether or not Tray Woodall will be able to go. But if the Panthers don't step up their perimeter defense with (or without) Woodall they could be in trouble against Notre Dame's Eric Atkins.

Top 25 Games
7:00 PM (13) Pittsburgh at Notre Dame (ESPN2)
9:00 PM (14) Wisconsin at Nebraska (ESPN2)
7:00 PM Maryland-Eastern Shore at (24) Virginia

NCAA Division I Games
7:00 PM Winthrop at Georgia (ESPN3)
7:00 PM Providence at St. John's (ESPN3)
7:30 PM Minnesota at Illinois (BTN)
8:00 PM Texas Southern at Saint Louis
8:00 PM New Orleans at North Texas
8:00 PM Belhaven at Southern Miss
8:00 PM Cal State Bakersfield at Texas Tech (ESPN3)
8:30 PM Eureka at Western Illinois
9:00 PM Cal State San Marcos at BYU (BYU TV)
9:00 PM Vanguard at Loyola Marymount