Minnesota at No. 19 Illinois: Three In The Key Preview & Prediction

Matthew Stevens

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Following back-to-back road wins, Illinois will now get to experience an exciting atmosphere at State Farm Center where Illini basketball is back to where it was expected to be after a long hiatus.

Illinois has a national ranking and carries the Big Ten Conference’s longest active winning streak at six games while also owning its longest conference winning streak in 15 years, since setting a school record with 25 consecutive Big Ten victories spanning the 2004 and 2005 seasons (Jan. 31, 2004-March 3, 2005).

No. 19 Illinois (15-5, 7-2) is off to its best nine-game start in the Big Ten since starting 15-0 in 2005 and is five games above .500 in Big Ten play, meanwhile, for the first time since Feb. 26, 2010. Illinois has opened league play with four home wins for the first time since 2009, when it won its first six.

They’ll return to State Farm Center against a team that knows how to pick up wins away from home and has “two of the five best players in the league” in Marcus Carr and Daniel Oturu. A week ago, Marcus Carr’s last-second heroics helped lift the Gophers to a season sweep of Ohio State. Minnesota won in Columbus for the first time since 2005.

“Carr is a true point,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said Wednesday. “He’s a guy that puts so much pressure on the defense. He can do it off the bounce going right, going left and if you make a mistake and go under (a screen), he’ll make a 3-pointer. What he does on the basketball court is pretty special.”

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Game 21: Minnesota at No. 19 Illinois

Date/Time/Place: Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020: 6:30 p.m. CST, State Farm Center, Champaign, Ill.

Capacity: 15,544

Records: Illinois 15-5, 7-2 in Big Ten; 12-21, 7-13 in Big Ten Conference in 2018-19. Minnesota 11-9, 5-5 in Big Ten; 22-14, 9-11 in Big Ten Conference in 2018-19.

Line: Illinois by 5.5

Series notes: Illinois owns a 123-68 advantage in the all-time series including a 72-19 record in Champaign. In the last game inside the State Farm Center, Jan. 16, 2019, the Illini won 95-68 thanks to 23 points from Ayo Dosunmu and 20 points from Giorgi Bezhanishvili. Illinois led by as many as 36 points before settling for the final margin of 27. The final tally of 95 points marked Illinois’ highest total in a regulation conference game in 22 years, since beating Minnesota 96-90 on Jan. 14, 1997. Illinois has just one loss at State Farm Center this season and enters the Minnesota game looking to improve to 12-1 at home for the first time since 2014-15. 

TV: FS1 - Jeff Levering (PBP), Stephen Bardo (analyst)

Radio (Illinois): Brian Barnhart (PBP), Deon Thomas (analyst) - The broadcast can be heard live on TuneIn online radio, Sirius/XM 381 and at FightingIllini.com.

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Before every game of the 2019-20 season, we take a look at three things you’ll want to watch for after the tip.

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1) Frazier has a much different defensive job vs. Carr

In the last few games, Illinois junior guard Trent Frazier has been told to face-guard his opponent and not worry about helping any of his other four teammates. Frazier was asked to run around and be in the comfort zone of Purdue sharp-shooter Sasha Stefanovic and force Michigan's Zavier Simpson to shoot from uncomfortable angles. In the return home, Frazier will need to force Minnesota point guard Marcus Carr from getting any rhythm either with his shot or his passing ability. Carr is the team’s second-leading scorer while leading the team and ranking second in the conference and eighth nationally in assists per game. He is also the team’s minutes leader, ranking 19th in the country and tops in the Big Ten averaging 38.6 minutes per game. This is especially important seeing as how Frazier was hampered with foul trouble at Michigan and forced Ayo Dosunmu to handle guarding the point while also having to jumpstart the offense on the other end as well. Frazier, who has always drawn the most important assignment, must be up to the task tonight without being forced to foul or need help on Minnesota's screen-and-roll game. 

2) The matchup in the middle 

Illini Now/Sports Illustrated has documented this matchup between Illinois freshman Kofi Cockburn and Minnesota sophomore Daniel Oturu HERE but in order for Illinois to win this game, Cockburn can not be missing in action like he was at Michigan Saturday. Cockburn ranks 45th in the NCAA in rebounding – and fourth nationally among freshmen at 9.4 per game. Maybe the most important stat is Cockburn is 30th nationally in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (6.6) and 69th in free throw rate (57.9). If he can get Oturu in foul trouble, as opponents have seemingly done to him on the road, then Minnesota becomes a completely different team and reliant on its perimeter shooting (Gophers are 7-0 when they shoot 50 percent or better this season). Oturu is simply a double-double machine. He has 11 double-doubles on the season after contributing 26 points and 14 rebounds in the win over Penn State. Against Michigan, Oturu scored a new career-high of 30 points while adding seven rebounds and a steal. His 11 double-doubles ties for sixth in the country and leads the Big Ten.

3) Can Da'Monte come up big against the Gophers again?

It may surprise Illini fans to learn junior guard Da'Monte Williams actually has had offensive success against Gophers. The Peoria native, who is shooting just 4 of 28 from 3-point range and hasn't scored in seven consecutive games, averages 6.5 points per game and seven rebounds per game in his matchups versus Minnesota. Williams was the first name Underwood mentioned in the post-game media conference after the 64-62 win over Michigan despite Williams having no points, one field goal attempt and five rebounds in 30 minutes of action. Why? Let the Illini third-year head coach tell you. 

"He's 6-foot-3 with a seven-foot wingspan and we ask him to guard 5-men at times and 4-men at times who are 6-foot-9 or 6-10," Underwood said Wednesday. "He's extremely strong. There is a play in the game where (Michigan guard) Isaiah Livers tries to back him down. And he goes at him three straight times, and Da'Monte has an armbar up and is wedged and Livers hits him three times but doesn't move him. That, I have tremendous appreciation for. A lot of guys will just cave and let him go. But to do that three straight times, there's some toughness, some grit and physically he's capable of doing that. And then, all of sudden in the next play he's chasing off David DeJulius in a ball screen and doesn't miss those assignments. Three minutes later, we're saying you have to guard Zavier Simpson now and get over the top of every ball screen. And he never misses a beat. Very, very rarely do I have to get on Da'Monte Williams for missing an assignment or making a mistake in execution." 

With Alan Griffin out of this game due to the back end of his two-game suspension by the Big Ten, Williams will need to be on point once again, especially on the defensive end but might be capable of proving some offense as well.  

Prediction: Illinois 77, Minnesota 67 

This game comes down to the defensive end of the floor for the Illini. Minnesota is 7-0 this season and 16-0 over the last two seasons when they shoot 50 percent or better from the field. Fortunately for Illinois, they are allowing an average of just 58.8 points per game, a 37.8 opponent field goal percentage and 30.9 percent shooting from 3-point range during its current six-game winning streak. If Illinois can contain Carr and Oturu from career nights, Illinois should get its seventh straight Big Ten win and move back into a tie for the conference lead with Michigan State.

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