Illinois Fighting Illini vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Pick & Prediction FEBRUARY 28th 2024

Minnesota has not posted a .500 or better record in Big Ten play since 2016-17 — the league’s longest dry spell. Not many expected the Golden Gophers to come anywhere close to that after finishing last the past two years.

Well, don’t look now, but Minnesota sits at 8-8 in the conference with just four games remaining. With Penn State and Indiana still due to visit Minneapolis — where the Gophers are 6-2 vs. Big Ten foes this season — a .500 season is in reach.

Minnesota (17-10, 8-8) can get a jumpstart on its goal by pulling off its biggest road win of the year at No. 13 Illinois (20-7, 11-5) on Wednesday night in Champaign, Ill.

The Illini have been one of the Gophers’ biggest hurdles going back to the Richard Pitino era. Illinois has won six straight over Minnesota and seven of its past eight — usually by wide margins.

Worse yet, the Gophers are coming off their worst offensive performance. They scored a season-low 55 points in Sunday’s 18-point loss at Nebraska, shooting just 31.0 percent from the field and 26.1 percent on 3-pointers. Oh, they also committed 13 turnovers while amassing just six assists.

But Minnesota coach Ben Johnson wasn’t as concerned about his players’ numbers as he was their level of passion — something that needs to change Wednesday.

“I just told (my guys), that’s what desperation feels like,” said Johnson, referring to Nebraska’s sense of urgency. “We have to learn from that. That’s what a possessed team looks like and feels like.

“When you’re playing this time of year, and especially when you’re playing for whatever it is — whether it’s to keep a winning streak going, whether it’s for postseason — there is a level that you have to reach competitive-wise. That’s one thing that we’ve got to take for guys who haven’t been in this position before. From here on out, it’s like, that’s what playing hard in the last two weeks of the season looks and feels like.”

As for Illinois, coach Brad Underwood frequently wishes big man Coleman Hawkins wouldn’t be so demonstrably passionate. When the Illini lost last Wednesday at Penn State — blowing a seven-point lead in the final minute — Hawkins appeared agitated with a referee before missing two late free throws in the 90-89 loss.

Before Illinois took on Iowa Saturday at home, Underwood and Hawkins had a long conversation that wasn’t much fun. But Hawkins was inspired to deliver a career-high 30 points — seven more than his previous best — along with five assists and five steals in Illinois’ 95-85 win.

“All those conversations stay really private, but we had a get-real conversation,” Underwood said. “I’m really happy with him. I love his response. A year or two ago, I’m not sure that would have been the response. But he practiced great. And it’s just a correlation that happens when the mind is right and the mental approach is right. It was not at Penn State. Quite simply, not. He knows that.

“But he also has to understand the impact that it has on everyone at this university. Every fan. Every teammate. It’s bigger than just him.”

–Field Level Media

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