In the first game of the Big Ten tournament, the Illinois Fighting Illini take on the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The Illini enter having won both of the previous matchups between these two teams and enter with a 63% chance of victory, according to KenPom.com, but the Gophers will try to pull the upset with an undermanned squad.
Here are the major keys to be watching for in the inaugural game of this year's conference tourney.
1. How does Minnesota compensate for important losses?
Going into this matchup, Richard Pitino's team will be down five scholarship players, four of which have been lost over the last two weeks. Leading scorer Nate Mason, Kevin Dorsey and DuPree McBrayer have all been suspended for the rest of the season after a sexually explicit video surfaced on one of their Twitter accounts. Joey King, the team's senior leader and third-leading scorer is also likely done for the year with a foot fracture. Carlos Morris was dismissed from the team back in February for detrimental behavior. This begs the question, how does Minnesota compensate for these key gaps in their roster?
The go-to guy right now looks to be Jordan Murphy. The freshman forward from San Antonio scored 22 points in the last game against Illinois, the second-best scoring night of his career. Look for Murphy to play high minutes in this game; even though he's an underclassman, he's very experienced for his age. Fellow freshman Stephon Sharp is also worth looking out for. He scored 19 against Illinois in the last matchup, playing a career-high 39 minutes. He, along with Murphy, will be the focal point of the Gopher offense for the entirety of this game.
2. What will Illinois get from Hill/Nunn?
Malcolm Hill and Kendrick Nunn present one of the most dynamic scoring duos in the entire conference. Hill is coming off a career-high 39 point performance against Penn State last week and Nunn dropped 25 in his last meeting with Minnesota. Together, the two have more than enough firepower to take down this Gopher team, but will they lead a cohesive and effective Illinois offense not only out of the gate, but throughout the entire game?
One of the thing that both Hill and Nunn will be doing a lot of is shooting the three. Minnesota is 309th in the nation at guarding the three-point shot, allowing opponents to shoot 37.5% from beyond the arc on the season. On the contrary, Hill and Nunn take a combined 10.6 threes per game and will be sure to take their fair share throughout the contest. If they are able to hit at least 35% of those shots, Illinois should be in a great place. However, if they are cold, they might have to resort to the unnatural (or at least for Illini basketball) strategy of throwing the ball into the paint. Maverick Morgan can take care of that.
3. How competitive will this game really be?
Both of these teams have struggled immensely throughout the season and really don't have a ton to be playing for in this tournament. With likely no NIT or CBI berth for either squad, is this really a game that is going to be competitive from start to finish? Illinois, while not a great team, clearly looks like the winner on paper in this one. Not only have they won the last two matchups, but Minnesota is missing five of their top six scorers from this season as a whole. Barring a miraculous performance from one of the Golden Gopher underclassmen, this looks like a game that the Fighting Illini should be able to win handily.