Two Questions About Illinois vs. MinnesotaPosted by Deepak Jayanti (@dee_b1g) & Jonathan Batuello on February 19th, 2014
Two teams that are heading in opposite directions will face off on Wednesday night in Minneapolis. Illinois enters the game having lost nine out of the last ten games while Minnesota is trying to keep their NCAA hopes alive. The Big Ten microsite writers – Deepak Jayanti and Jonathan Batuello – discuss two important questions about the game:
How critical is Andre Hollins continued progression in his return from the ankle injury to Minnesota?
JB: The Gophers took a major skid without him when it lost three of four games. Since coming back he has had good and bad outings. He dropped 22 on Wisconsin, but was barely noticeable against Northwestern. It needs him to be in good form to win and continue on its path from bubble to NCAA Tournament team. What he does in comparison to Rayvonte Rice in this game will be instrumental in who wins. The importance of this game for Minnesota also can’t be understated. It’s three-game stretch after Illinois is at Ohio State, Iowa, and at Michigan, so it needs this win to avoid a potentially disastrous losing streak. Get this one, win one of those three and close out the season with a win against Penn State and it is at 20 wins and likely in the NCAA Tournament. Andre Hollins playing better and getting back to potentially All-Big Ten form will decide that fate.
DJ: Do the Gophers need a healthy Hollins to win a game in the NCAA Tournament? Yes. But they don’t really need him at 100% health to make the NCAAs because the offense runs through Deandre Mathieu and Maurice Walker now. Mathieu’s ability to get into the paint off the screens is a fierce weapon that defenses have struggled to stop over the past four games, as he averaged over 14 points per game during that stretch. Hollins’ three-point shooting will help the Gophers spread the floor but he doesn’t need to carry the offensive burden like he had to during the first few months of the season. Richard Pitino’s squad will make the tourney by pressing hard on defense with their depth, attacking the basket with Mathieu and finishing strong around the hoop with their big men.
JB: It certainly is confusing what has happened to Illinois the past two seasons under Groce. Great non-conference seasons leading them into the top 25 followed by disastrous Big Ten campaigns. The big issue is how bad its shooting has been in conference play. Illinois is last in conference play in field goal percentage and 3-point shooting. It may not be perfect, but for Groce, he has already made one smart move in the past three games with Kendrick Nunn’s increase in minutes. The freshman has played well and his progress certainly bodes well for the future. It also is time for some upperclassmen like Tracy Abrams, Jon Ekey, and Joseph Betrand to get less playing time. Their performances the past few weeks has been troubling. Groce should hand the reins over to the underclassmen and see what they can do. If nothing else, it can’t be much worse than what he is getting now and it will help next season.
DJ: More on the underclassmen, Nunn has averaged 11 points per game over the past three games and he is starting to gain confidence in his shot from the perimeter. Nunn also seems to have the knack to be around the ball and has shown a flair for defensive intensity. As you mentioned, the best thing Groce can do now is consistently play Nunn and hope that Malcolm Hill develops into a decent defender on the perimeter. Illini fans at least want to see a glimmer of hope heading into next year and with a NCAA bid this season practically out of sight, the freshmen are the best thing left for the Illini. I wouldn’t mind seeing a bit more of Maverick Morgan on the court instead of Nnanna Egwu, especially in the late game situations. Groce prefers Egwu because of his ability to shoot an 18-footer off the pick and roll, but Morgan could use these minutes over the next few weeks to develop into an a solid rebounder that could contribute next year. Overall, all the Illini can do at this point is compete and show that they haven’t lost the competitive spirit heading into March.