Beat writer Marcus Jackson, in a prediction slump, says No. 12 Illinois will get by No. 8 Minnesota today (8 p.m., BTN):
Illinois (14-2, 1-1 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams So. 6-1 12.1
G D.J. Richardson Sr. 6-3 10.6
G Brandon Paul Sr. 6-4 18.5
F Tyler Griffey Sr. 6-9 8.7
C Nnanna Egwu So. 6-11 6.6
FYI: Paul and Richardson set career-best streaks in Saturday’s win. Paul has reached double figures in 16 straight games, and Richardson has hit at least one three-pointer in 22 consecutive games.
OFF THE BENCH
G Joseph Bertrand Jr. 6-6 9.3
F Sam McLaurin Sr. 6-8 3.9
F Myke Henry So. 6-6 3.6
Minnesota (14-1, 2-0 Big Ten)
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Andre Hollins So. 6-1 13.1
G Austin Hollins Jr. 6-4 11.1
G Joe Coleman So. 6-4 9.7
F Rodney Williams Sr. 6-7 12.9
F Trevor Mbakwe Sr. 6-8 8.7
FYI: Williams, who went over the 1,000-point mark in his career Sunday against Northwestern, needs 39 rebounds and 32 assists to become the third Gopher with 1,000 points, 500 rebounds and 200 assists.
OFF THE BENCH
G Maverick Ahanmisi Jr. 6-2 4.5
G Julian Welch Sr. 6-3 3.7
C Elliott Eliason So. 6-11 2.3
Site: The Assembly Hall (16,618), Champaign.
TV: BTN — Brian Anderson (play-by-play) and former Illini Eddie Johnson (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Illinois leads 116-63. Last meeting — Minnesota 77, Illinois 72, (OT) Jan. 28, 2012.
FYI: The Illini have won 12 of their last 13 games against the Gophers at the Assembly Hall, including last season’s 81-72 win in double overtime of the Big Ten opener.
Two things concern Groce entering the matchup against the Gophers: The first is their prowess on the offensive glass. Minnesota leads the country, averaging 16.8 offensive rebounds per game.
“Obviously, we’re going to have to compete on the backboard. I thought we did a good job of that Saturday, but that’s not an automatic that you’re going to get that Wednesday against the team that’s ranked No. 1 in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage,” Groce said of the Gophers, who get close to half of their missed shots back.
Rebounding has been a concern for the Illini much of the season, particularly the three games leading up to the Ohio State game where they were beaten by an average of 13 rebounds per game. Groce said it would take a collective effort against the Buckeyes and that’s how it played out, as six Illinois players had four or more rebounds, led by Nnanna Egwu’s eight. It will take a similar, if not better, effort tonight against the physical Gophers.
The other is their ability to create turnovers. Minnesota is second in the Big Ten, forcing 15.8 turnovers.
“They play really hard, they compete, and those steals lead to easy baskets and points,” Groce said. “We have to make sure we can limit baskets, if we can, through offensive rebounding. We have to limit easy baskets by taking care of the basketball.”
One of the knocks on Illinois, particularly early in the season, was that if the team didn’t make a high volume of three-pointers, it was going to be in trouble. The Illini have slowed from the 11 three-pointers clip that they had early to lead the nation for the early portion of the schedule, but it hasn’t crippled them. Saturday was a good example of that as they hit 8 of 27 and defeated the then-eighth-ranked team by 19 points.
“I thought the best thing about Saturday with our team: We defended, we rebounded, got the ball to the paint via the pass and the dribble,” Groce said. “Well, we didn’t make them Saturday at the level that we’re capable of making them. We made some, but we’re capable of shooting it better than we shot it Saturday.”
That’s an encouraging sign for Illinois going forward, knowing it can manufacture other ways to score inside the arc, while teams still have to prepare to defend against a three-point barrage.
“Our guys are getting pretty good looks overall, and with the course of time, I like our odds with the shooters that we have over the breadth of a season — in this case 16 more games — that they’re going to make their fair share,” Groce said.
The first two reserves off Groce’s bench, Joseph Bertrand and Sam McLaurin, have been instrumental in the 14-2 start.
“For your team to be good, you’ve got to have a sixth man or seventh man, or at least one that’s like a starter that plays those type of minutes that produces at that level. If you don’t, your team’s probably not going to be real good,” Groce said. “Joe and Sam have done that at a pretty high level for us.”
Still, Illinois hopes to get more consistent contributions off the bench, particularly tonight against a Minnesota team that has 10 players averaging 10 minutes per game. Myke Henry and Devin Langford figure to be those guys for the Illini.
“I’d like to see Henry get a little bit more consistent at taking care of the basketball, ball security. Rebounds per minute played, he got one defensively the other day in 11 minutes played. I think he has the capability to improve in that area,” Groce said while noting Henry is a shooter who has to be accounted for.
Langford was sick Saturday and missed the Ohio State game. Groce said he’s available tonight.
“That kind of took him a step back, but I’m sure he’ll keep moving forward and getting better,” Groce said.
Illinois 71, Minnesota 70. The Illinois players were challenged by their coaching staff after the loss to Purdue and responded with their best performance of the season in Saturday’s win. The trick now is to bring the same effort and intensity that highlighted the win against the Buckeyes. “Just not getting too high off that win, stay level,” Brandon Paul said. “It’s a long season. People got crazy after that Purdue loss, doubting us and whatnot. We came back and beat Ohio State pretty convincingly, so they obviously want to praise us for that. We appreciate all the support. It’s one game, and we’ve still got a lot more in the Big Ten.” Going 2-0 against consecutive Top 10 opponents would be a shot in the arm for the Illini. A correct prediction would be a necessary shot in the arm for The News-Gazette prediction’s confidence, which has dropped three of the last four. (N-G record: 11-5)