Illinois took advantage of a stretch of its schedule loaded with home games to crack the Top 25, but it now embarks on a potentially difficult road portion.
Although the Illini haven’t had much success on the road lately, it really hasn’t made much difference where they’ve played Minnesota.
No. 19 Illinois looks to win its first road game in a month on Thursday as it tries for its 21st straight victory over the Golden Gophers.
The Illini (17-3, 5-2 Big Ten) are coming off Saturday’s 64-57 win over Wisconsin, their eighth straight victory at Assembly Hall since a 76-74 loss to Clemson on Dec. 2—their only home defeat of the season.
Illinois benefited from a stretch of playing four of its last five games in Champaign, but it now plays four of its next six on the road.
The Illini won at then-No. 9 Purdue in their Big Ten opener on Dec. 30, but lost at Michigan and then-No. 7 Michigan State in their next two road games.
A trip to Williams Arena might be just what Illinois needs to end its road woes.
The Illini have won 20 straight games over the Gophers (17-3, 5-3) since a 75-63 road loss on March 4, 1999. Eight of those wins have come at Williams Arena, where the Gophers are 2-2 in league play this season.
This is Illinois’ longest winning streak in school history over a conference opponent.
The Illini went just 5-13 in Big Ten play last season, but managed to sweep the home-and-home series from the Gophers. Illinois, which has already surpassed last season’s win total (16), also beat Minnesota 54-50 in the conference tournament.
Illini senior guard Trent Meacham has scored just 10 points on 2-of-14 shooting from 3-point range in his last three games combined, but averaged 15.7 points on 11-of-14 shooting from beyond the arc in the three games against the Gophers last season.
Demetri McCamey paced Illinois with a season-high 25 points on Saturday, as Illinois held off a Badgers rally with eight straight points with less than five minutes remaining.
“It doesn’t matter what the score is as long as we won,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said.
It was the Illini’s defense that led the team to victory, though.
Illinois, which leads the Big Ten in scoring defense (56.6) and is third in opponents’ field goal percentage (39.5), held Wisconsin to 35.6 percent shooting.
“With their bigs it’s tough to get to the rim and their perimeter defenders are now much more mature,” Badgers coach Bo Ryan said. “You’ve got guys now that handled a tough year last year and keep believing that you’re just going to get better, and they are.”
Minnesota relied on its inside game in Sunday’s 67-63 win at Indiana, but it may have trouble in the paint against Illinois 7-foot-1 center Mike Tisdale and 6-foot-10 forward Mike Davis.
After shooting just 27.6 percent from the field, including 3-of-19 from 3-point range, in last Thursday’s 70-62 loss to then-No. 18 Purdue, Gophers coach Tubby Smith urged his team to push the ball inside.
The team responded, as 6-foot-7 Damian Johnson had 18 points and six rebounds and 6-foot-10 Ralph Sampson III had 13 points and eight boards.
“Coach really emphasized passing to the post, that was our main emphasis today and we were able to execute that plan today,” said Sampson, the son of the former All-American center from Virginia. “We felt we needed to have a way to get back on the right track.”
Despite the win, the Gophers dropped from No. 21 out of the rankings as they lost to Northwestern and the Boilermakers in their previous two contests.
Minnesota is 1-2 against Top 25 opponents this season—all at Williams Arena.