On Wednesday, the 2016 Big Ten Tournament officially tipped off with two interesting games between the conference's bottom four teams. Things started with a matchup between the No. 12 seed Illinois Fighting Illini and the No. 13 seed Minnesota Golden Gophers. Neither team has had a great season, but it was an opportunity to keep the each team's postseason hopes alive.
From the opening tip, Illinois took control and never relinquished it back to Minnesota. It's no secret that the Gophers are playing shorthanded and it showed up early and often on Wednesday evening. Illinois led 38-22 at halftime and ultimately pushed that to a 85-52 final score. Illinois simply had better stars, more depth, and a more talented available roster than Minnesota.
With that, let's see what we learned from the game.
What We Learned
1. Illinois Keeps The Dream Alive.
Realistically speaking, expectations weren't all that high for Illinois coming into the Big Ten Tournament. After all, when a team is a No. 12 seed in a conference tournament and relegated to a Wednesday game, people aren't going to be too excited. Nonetheless, fans certainly hoped that the team could take care of business against Minnesota and have a chance at the upset against Iowa on Thursday afternoon.
So far, so good.
Illinois opened up early and raced out to a pretty big lead by halftime. For a team that has to play the extra game on Wednesday, that's about the perfect scenario. The guys got to take the foot off the gas in the second half and mentally move on to a matchup with Iowa on Thursday.
On Thursday, Illinois is going to be a major underdog against Iowa, but on Wednesday, Illinois did about all it could to set itself up for the upset bid.
2. The Big Three Will Determine How Far Illinois Can Go This Week.
For much of the season, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Malcolm Hill, and Kendrick Nunn have carried Illinois and on Wednesday evening, things weren't any different. The three players combined for 42 points and were the key pieces in pushing Illinois over the top on Wednesday.
If Illinois is going to pull off the upset on Thursday, these three are undeniably the players that will have to step up. All three will need to play well and particularly, shoot well from outside. On Wednesday, the three players went 7-for-13 from long range, which was a huge boost to the team's performance. It carried the offense and if they can come anywhere near that on Thursday, Illinois will have a legitimate chance to knock off Iowa.
3. Minnesota Gets A Tough End To A Tougher Season.
Most Gopher fans and media outlets saw this as a rebuilding season for Minnesota even before the season started back in November, but not many could have anticipated just how much this team would struggle this season. The team suffered several bad home losses during non-conference play, opened conference play at a dreadful 0-13, and finished the year at 8-23 overall.
With those 23 losses, Minnesota set a program record for the most losses in a single-season.
That's not just a rebuilding year.
That's a Godfather III bad performance.
Of course, with Minnesota's loss on Wednesday, that suffering finally comes to an end. There were bright moments this year, highlighted by the home wins over Clemson and Maryland, but there were far too many losses to view this as anything close to even a mediocre year. Regardless of what one may believe about the future direction of this program, this season was a disaster. It was a slow motion car crash played out in 31 games.
Now, the focus has to turn to the roster, the recruiting trail, and next season. Next year is the most important season yet under head coach Richard Pitino. The team needs to show real progress next year. The big things to follow will be how Pitino deals with the suspensions of Kevin Dorsey, Nate Mason, and Dupree McBrayer, how last year's transfer Reggie Lynch develops this offseason, and if Pitino can keep momentum on the recruiting trail.
4. Jordan Murphy Is The Most Important Piece For Minnesota.
There have been a few positives for Minnesota down the stretch this season and nothing has been more exciting than the play of freshman Jordan Murphy. He's been a dynamic player on the wing and is the piece that Minnesota is going to have to build around for next year.
On Wednesday, Murphy showed his potential during the entire duration of the game. He finished with nine points, nine rebounds, and three assists during the game. The Gophers may have come up short at the end, but Murphy was one of the major reasons the game finished as closely as it did.
If there's one reason to be optimistic about Minnesota basketball right now, it has to be Murphy.
Wednesday wasn't a game that will redefine the season for either Illinois or Minnesota, but it was a game that keeps Illinois' dreams alive and ends what was a rough season for the Gophers.
Illinois will face Iowa on Thursday 25 minutes after the conclusion of No. 8 Michigan vs No. 9 Northwestern.