Minnesota (20-11) vs. Illinois (21-11)
The Sports Network
DATE & TIME: Thursday, March 14, 12 p.m. (et)
FACTS & STATS: Site: United Center (20,917) -- Chicago, Illinois. Television: BTN. Home Record: Minnesota 15-2, Illinois 12-4. Away Record: Minnesota 3-8, Illinois 5-6. Neutral Record: Minnesota 2-1, Illinois 4-1. Conference Record: Minnesota 8-10, Illinois 8-10. Series Record: Illinois leads, 109-62.
GAME NOTES: The 16th annual Big Ten Conference Tournament gets underway on Thursday afternoon, as the eighth-seeded Illinois Fighting Illini go up against the ninth-seeded Minnesota Golden Gophers in opening round action at the United Center in Chicago.
Illinois, which has won this event twice, most recently in 2005, has a record of 23-13 in the tourney which is second only to Ohio State. The Illini were untouchable for the first five weeks of the season, winning 12 straight games out of the gate before bowing to Missouri. Unfortunately, the Big Ten schedule was not nearly as kind and the team was left two games under .500 (8-10) after closing with setbacks against Iowa and Ohio State on the road last week.
As for Minnesota, a team which has played in the championship round only once in the previous 15 tournaments, it finished in a tie for seventh place in the league standings with both Illinois and Purdue after dropping two straight and four of the last six games on the calendar.
The history between these teams is a long one and consists of 171 previous meetings, of which Illinois has won 109, including a 57-53 decision last month. When it comes to this tournament, the Illini are a perfect 4-0 versus the Gophers.
The winner of this game will be back in action on Friday to challenge top- seeded Indiana in the quarterfinals.
In conference games this season, the Gophers generated a modest 64.1 ppg as they shot 42.9 percent from the floor, but just 65.7 percent at the free-throw line. The team did make up for some of those shooting issues by beating opponents on the glass by more than six per game, thanks to Trevor Mbakwe who cleared 9.8 rpg to go along with his 10.9 ppg. However, Mbakwe was also one of the reasons the team slumped at the charity stripe as he converted just 58.1 percent. Trying to pick up some of the slack in that department was Andre Hollins who connected on 85.5 percent at the line and 40.4 percent beyond the 3-point arc in order to generate his team-best 14.6 ppg.
Similar in approach to the Golden Gophers, Illinois also tries to keep scoring to a minimum more often than not, settling in at 64.3 ppg versus the rest of the Big Ten. The team has made good on only 29.4 percent from 3-point range through 18 league bouts, but that didn't stop the program from attempting about 40 percent of their total field goals from beyond the arc. Brandon Paul, responsible for 14.4 ppg, doesn't have the keenest aim on the unit, but he still felt comfortable enough to let fly with an average of about six 3- pointers per game, hitting just 30.1 percent of those tries. D.J. Richardson (14.2 ppg) is also considered a deep threat with his 34.4 percent accuracy on the perimeter, but not so much Tracy Abrams (9.4 ppg, 64 assists) who is much better off dishing the ball to his teammates.
Expect a relatively low-scoring affair, and for the Illini to advance on the backs of Paul, Richardson and company.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Illinois 62, Minnesota 55
03/14 10:36:33 ET