It's been a long break for Illinois after its last non-conference game against Florida A&M last week was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Up to 10 Illini players tested positive, leading to the team taking a pause, something we've seen all across college basketball. The Illini's game against Minnesota, initially scheduled for Jan. 2, was also moved to Tuesday, Jan. 4, meaning Illinois will be very fresh after a long Christmas break.
The Illini last played Dec. 22 in the annual Braggin' Rights game against Missouri. Illinois dominated from start to finish.
Who is Minnesota?
The orange and blue will travel to Minnesota with 12 days rest on Tuesday night, presumably as big favorites. Illinois (9-3) enters the Big Ten schedule 2-0 with wins at Iowa and home over Rutgers.
Minnesota (10-1) has been a surprising team in the Big Ten to this point after a perfect non-conference season and defeating Michigan in Ann Arbor on Dec. 11. Last season, the Gophers went 14-15, including an abysmal 6-14 in the conference.
At season's end, the university fired Richard Pitino and now lean on Ben Johnson to right the ship. So far, he's got the Gophers playing well with wins over Western Kentucky, Pittsburgh, and Mississippi State. A loss to Michigan State by single-digits is better than many expected, and the victory over Michigan is one to make a solid case for an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament in March.
The Gophers are led by big man Jamison Battle, who scored 27 points against Hunter Dickinson and the Wolverines.
He gets an even bigger test against All-American Kofi Cockburn.
The Gophers have transfers Luke Loewe and Abdoulaye Thiam on the roster. Lead guard Payton Willis, who just netted his 1,000th point before the new year, will be the main focus defensively for the Illini as he leads the Big Ten in three-point percentage (46 percent). Eric Curry has been especially productive for the Gophers, compiling his first career double-double (14 points, 10 rebounds) in his last game. He also tallied a career-high 18 points against Michigan State. Battle ranks sixth in the Big Ten, averaging 18.9 points per game.
The offense goes through Battle and Willis. Trent Frazier and Cockburn's defense will be essential for Illinois' success in this game.
What is Andre Curbelo's Status?
Unfortunately for Illinois, it looks like point guard Andre Curbelo is still out, but Brad Underwood remains hopeful he'll be back soon.
Illinois also announced back on Dec. 10 that Austin Hutcherson would be sidelined for the rest of the season. He had back surgery a few days before Christmas.
Nonetheless, the Illini will rely again on the guard play of Alfonso Plummer and Trent Frazier while Curbelo is out.
The Importance of this Game For Illinois
After a COVID-19 pause, the Illini are likely eager to get back on the court. Still, with little practice time during the winter break, Illinois will probably be rusty to start, especially in a challenging road environment.
However, Illinois should still come out on top in this one. Minnesota has likely not forgotten about last season's disasters at home and on the road against the Illini. Illinois won by 31 at Minnesota and 27 at State Farm Center.
The Illini will host Maryland on Thursday, when Ayo Dosunmu will see his jersey rise to the rafters at State Farm Center, then travel to Nebraska next week before hosting Michigan in Illinois' most significant test since their home loss to Arizona.
If Illinois plans to be atop the Big Ten with Purdue come March, the Illini need to win their next three contests against Minnesota, Maryland, and Nebraska.