Illini men's basketball prepares for second straight top-10 appointment
None of the players on the Illinois roster were alive the last time the Illini men's basketball team faced back-to-back top-10 opponents in the regular season.
Wednesday night's matchup against Minnesota at Assembly Hall will mark the first time since 1987 that the Illini will face off against consecutive top-10 teams.
The No. 12 Illini’s win over then-No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday remedied a potential freefall in the rankings after losing on the road to Purdue earlier in the week. The team will now be faced with an opponent which comes in on a 10-game winning streak and whose lone loss of the year was on Nov. 23 on a neutral court to top-ranked Duke.
“They’ve improved every year since I’ve gotten to college,” senior guard Brandon Paul said. “We’re looking to maintain our home court advantage and compete like we did last game.”
In the two meetings between the Illini and the Gophers last season, the teams played a combined three overtimes; each team emerged victorious on their home court. While injuries and transfers have crippled his past teams, Minnesota head coach Tubby Smith may have his best team since his arrival to Minnesota in 2007.
After missing almost all of last season with a torn ACL, Trevor Mbakwe has returned to the Gophers, averaging 8.7 points and 7.7 rebounds per game in just under 20 minutes of play. His presence, along with the athletic, 6-foot-7 senior Rodney Williams, is why Minnesota has proved to be prolific at offensive rebounding.
“They’re impressive,” head coach John Groce said. “They get 48 percent back on the offensive glass. They are lights out.”
“It’s one of our top priorities to get inside the paint,” sophomore center Nnana Egwu said. “They shot fake a lot, so we have to stay vertical and on the ground. Staying out of foul trouble will give us the best chance to win.”
When asked if Mbakwe looked to be back at full strength, Egwu smiled and said: “Oh yeah. He definitely is.”
Max can be reached at Tane1@dailyillini.com and @AirMaxTane.