The No. 19 Illinois Fighting Illini look to continue their surprising rise to the top of the Big Ten on Thursday night when they host the conference rival Minnesota Golden Gophers. Illinois has won six games in a row in Big Ten play and currently sits at 7-2 and in second place, a half-game behind the Michigan State Spartans.
Minnesota enters the game with an 11-9 mark overall and 5-5 in the Big Ten. While the record may not be overly impressive, coach Richard Pitino has challenged his team at every turn, playing the second-most difficult schedule in the nation.
The Illini are led by sophomore guard Ayo Dosunmu, who has really come into his own this season, averaging 16.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game. The 6-5 Chicago native struggled from behind the arc early in the season but has shot 40 percent from deep in his last five games.
Freshman big man Kofi Cockburn continues to show improvement throughout the season as well, averaging nearly a double-double at 14.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. He is currently fourth in the conference in offensive rebounds and sixth in both defensive and total rebounds.
Minnesota is led by one of the most underrated players in the country in big man Daniel Oturu. The 6-10 sophomore is averaging a double-double at 19.7 points and 11.3 rebounds per game. Oturu is also second in the Big Ten with 51 blocks.
In the backcourt, Minnesota is getting a somewhat surprising contribution from Pittsburgh transfer point guard Marcus Carr. The 6-2 sophomore is averaging 16.1 points, 6.9 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per game. Carr is the only player in the Big Ten averaging at least 16 points, six rebounds and five assists, and one of only three nationwide to put up those numbers.
Illinois is a 5.5-point favorite at home, with the over/under set at 136.
Can Minnesota Get Over Road Woes?
Minnesota can hang its hat on being battle-tested this season, but its 1-6 record straight up in road games is hardly desirable. The Gophers have been good against the spread at 12-7-1 on the season and 6-1 in their last seven games played on Thursday nights.
The total has gone under in 12 of Minnesota’s 20 games this season and in four of its last six.
Near Perfect At Home
Illinois has been stout all season at home, with the exception of the first half of the Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup against the Miami Hurricanes. The Illini are 11-1 straight up at home and 5-5-1 against the spread in Champaign.
Overall, Illinois is 10-8-1 ATS and 4-2 in its last six games. The Illinois total has gone under in 11 of its 19 games overall, including eight of its last 12.
Both Teams Are Due
There are those that expected Illinois to be good this season, but I am not sure anyone expected it to be quite this good. The Illini winning has sort of become a foregone conclusion, which can sometimes make you think they’re “due” to lose one.
Minnesota has played a brutal schedule and finally won a game on the road just a week ago at Ohio State. The Gophers were then destroyed at home by Michigan State, so it’s still unclear who this Minnesota team is.
The trends are too extreme to ignore in this game, so don’t overthink it. Illinois straight up is the safe pick along with the under. The Illini have been in dogfights the last few weeks, with four of their last five games being decided by four points or fewer. They won’t be able to punish the Gophers on the offensive glass like they have some others, so I expect Minnesota to keep it close. Bet on Minnesota and take the points.