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Illini basketball preview: Minnesota

Illinois at Minnesota
8 pm
TV: Big Ten Network

Big Ten basketball is back, just not in Champaign, as Illinois restart conference clashes this evening. The Illini are in Minneapolis for the first of a 5-game stretch where 4 games come on the road. Somehow, the weather in Minnesota is  worse than what we’re experiencing in CU, but the basketball is better.

The Gophers are 12-3 so far, averaging 83.8 points per game and limiting opponents to 70.6 points. Jordan Murphy has emerged for Minny as a legitimate contender for first team All-Big Ten, averaging a double-double so far, 19.1 points and 12.6 rebounds. He’s just one of four players averaging double figures, along with Nate Mason (15.5), Amir Coffey (14.0), and Reggie Lynch (10.0).

The big caveat with the Gophers, though, is talent of the teams they’ve played. By strength of schedule, Minnesota ranks 185; KenPom’s adjusted strength of schedule has them at 244, but their adjusted nonconference strength of schedule ranking is 282. When good teams have rivaled Minny, the flaws in Richard Pitino’s squad have shown. The Gophers’ three losses have come at the hands of Miami (Fla.), Nebraska, and Arkansas, and they’ve played very close games against quality opponents like Drake and Alabama. Wins have come against relatively poor teams such as Niagra and Oral Roberts.

By Sports Reference’s simple rating system, the Gophers and Illini are very close, despite disparity in their records, at 51 and 58, respectively; KenPom, however, diverges more greatly, with the Gophers at 43 and Illini at 88.

Leron Black has come on strong recently, with 19 points and 8.7 rebounds over the last 3 games, including his first double-double of the year in the win over Grand Canyon. Freshman Trent Frazier has been even better, racking up 17 points and 2.8 steals while shooting 44 percent from behind the arc in his last 5 games. With those two trending up and the Illini showing they can actually close out games in their two most recent wins, it seems like Illinois as 8-point underdogs this evening might not be a bad bet.

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