Minnesota has already proved to be of one of the Big Ten's better teams. The Golden Gophers' next three games should show if they're truly ready to compete for their first league title in 16 years.
No. 8 Minnesota will begin as tough a three-game slate as the conference has to offer on Wednesday night when it visits No. 12 Illinois.The Gophers (14-1, 2-0) are seeking their first 3-0 start in Big Ten play since 1996-97 -- the last year they claimed a conference championship. They beat Northwestern 69-51 on Sunday for their 10th straight victory since their only loss Nov. 22 against No. 1 Duke.Wednesday marks Minnesota's first road game since a 71-57 win at USC on Dec. 8. Coach Tubby Smith's team won its only other true road game at Florida State, 77-68, on Nov. 27.Should the Gophers extend their streak against the Illini, they'll have a chance to keep it going at No. 5 Indiana on Saturday before hosting No. 2 Michigan on Jan. 17. Those three opponents own a combined 43-3 record."Well, every game is important now, whether it's for the development of the program, development of players or just keeping the momentum we have going," Smith said.Minnesota struggled offensively in the first half against Northwestern, shooting 33.3 percent from the floor to score a season-low 17 points. Austin Hollins -- the team's third-leading scorer (11.1) -- ignited the Gophers in the second half, scoring 14 of his 19 on 5-of-7 shooting."That's the beauty about this team. Any game, somebody can step up big," said Trevor Mbakwe, who had four points, 11 rebounds and a season-high four blocks. "We needed that from Austin. Offensively, it was a struggle. It was ugly."The defense continues to be reliable, holding Northwestern to 38.5 percent from the field, the ninth opponent its kept under 40 percent.Illinois (14-2, 1-1) had lost two of three before bouncing back with an impressive 74-55 victory over then-No. 8 Ohio State on Saturday.The Fighting Illini improved to 8-0 at home."I think we just needed this game in general," said Brandon Paul, who with 19 points has scored in double figures in all 16 games. "I don't know why, but people got crazy after our last loss. But it's a long season."Paul continues to lead Illinois with 18.5 ppg and was 11 of 22 from the floor in his first two conference games, including 6 of 13 from beyond the arc. But his team has struggled with its 3-point shooting over the last six games, hitting 28.8 percent from long distance during that span.The Illini got a boost from 6-foot-11 center Nnanna Egwu, who scored a personal-best 16 points after coming in averaging 6.0 on the season. The sophomore had tallied 10 or more points only three times previously in his career."He continues to get better," coach John Groce said. "If there's ever a kid that deserves to get better, it's him. He works his tail off. He cares about Illinois, and he cares about winning ... we just have to keep working with him and getting him better because he'll do whatever you ask him to do."These schools have split the last six meetings after a 20-game win streak by Illinois in the series. Paul scored 28 points in a 77-72 loss at Minnesota on Jan. 28, 2012, the second consecutive matchup that went into overtime.