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GOPHERS MEN'S HOOPS VS. NO. 5 ILLINOIS

FULLER'S FOUR THINGS TO WATCH:

Replacing Kalscheur

Richard Pitino never wavered when starting Gabe Kalscheur during a shooting slump, because the junior guard's value was much more than on the offensive end.

Pitino called Kalscheur the top perimeter defender in the Big Ten, but his absence now for 3-4 weeks with a broken finger makes it a tough task to find a replacement.

Freshman Jamal Mashburn Jr. scored 19 points in his first career start in Wednesday's 82-72 loss at Indiana. It wasn't fair to ask him to make up for Kalscheur defensively, but Mashburn was impressive scoring the most points for a U freshman since 2019.

"I think he's a really good player," Pitino said. "I've always thought that. With Gabe being out for awhile here it's a great opportunity for him to jump at more minutes. Keep getting better."

Mashburn continues to work toward improving defensively, but he can't be matched up with the opposing team's best guard yet. That responsibility will likely be on sophomore Tre' Williams, who has started the last six games.

At 6-5 and 200 pounds, Williams has the size and athleticism to be disruptive on the ball. Pitino could also give former starter Both Gach a chance to make an impact defensively as well off the bench.

Kalscheur and Gophers standout point guard Marcus Carr did a solid job on Illinois junior Ayo Dosunmu in the Dec. 15 loss in Champaign. Dosunmu, who is averaging 21 points this season, was held to just 10 points on 5-for-14 shooting and four turnovers.

Carr, Mashburn and Williams might have to take turns slowing down Dosunmu in Saturday's matchup at Williams Arena.

Containing Kofi

Dosunmu has looked every bit like a Big Ten player of the year candidate in recent games.

But the Illini are far from a one-man show.

In fact, it was sophomore center Kofi Cockburn's career-best 33 points and 13 rebounds that led to a 27-point Gophers' loss earlier this season.

The 7-foot, 280-pound Cockburn has been nearly unstoppable in the paint this year with 14 double-doubles to lead the Big Ten, including in four straight games.

How will the Gophers slow down arguably the conference's most intimidating inside presence? That would've been a tough assignment for their center Liam Robbins, even if he was healthy.

But the 7-foot junior has been hobbled the last two games with a lingering ankle sprain. Robbins had nearly as many fouls (7) as points (8) combined in losses at Maryland and Indiana.

He's expected to start Saturday against Illinois. But Pitino will likely rely on senior Eric Curry and sophomore Sam Freeman in the middle to bang with Cockburn if Robbins is limited.

Rebounding margin

The Gophers are the worst teams in the Big Ten in rebounding margin (minus-3.0). Minnesota won the battle of the boards for three straight games vs. Michigan State, Wisconsin, and Ohio State earlier in the season. But that wasn't enough to overcome being overpowered on the glass by Illinois (minus-18), Iowa twice (minus-17 and minus-6), Michigan twice (minus-9 and minus-4), Maryland (minus-8), at Purdue (minus-17) and at Indiana (minus-10).

During a three-game win streak, the Gophers made strides holding their own on the boards. They were barely outrebounded by Rutgers and Purdue (both minus-two), two of the most physical teams in the Big Ten. Minnesota had success crashing the offensive boards, grabbing 16 vs. Rutgers and Nebraska, and then 13 vs. Purdue at home.

Robbins, who had his third double-double this season with 11 points and 10 rebounds vs. Purdue at home, leads the Gophers (6.9) in rebounding this season. But Robbins had just five rebounds combined in the last two games dealing with his injury and foul trouble.

This isn't like years past when Jordan Murphy (twice) and Daniel Oturu (last season) led the Big Ten in rebounding. They were good for 10-12 rebounds every night. Now it has to be more of a team effort.

Free-throw fancy

The Gophers currently rank No. 1 in the Big Ten overall (17.6) in free throws made per game overall, but that number has dropped to 13.8 free throws made in Big Ten games. This season is still a major upgrade from last year when they ranked 285thnationally with 11.5 foul shots made per game. They're getting to the line nearly twice as often and converting 75 percent, ranked fourth in the Big Ten in league games. Getting to the line is obviously a strength for Pitino's team. Getting outshot has been detrimental. They were 5-14 when outshot by their opponent on free throws last season. They're 3-7 in the same situation this season, which included a recent three-game losing streak.

Carr, who shoots 78.6% from the foul line, ranks third in the Big Ten with 103 free throws made this season trailing only Iowa's Luka Garza and Indiana's Trayce Jackson-Davis. Carr attacking the basket and getting to the foul line more often is critical to Minnesota's offense.

GAME INFO

Time:2:30 p.m. CT, Saturday.Where:Williams Arena.Line:Minnesota 4.5-point underdog.Series:Illinois leads the series 116-66, including 92-65 in Champaign on Dec. 15.TV: FOX.Online/Live video: FoxSportsRadio:100.3 KFAN

PROJECTED STARTERS

MINNESOTA GOPHERS(13-9, 6-9)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Marcus Carr 6-2 195 Jr.19.4

G – Jamal Mashburn Jr. 6-2 184 Fr. 6.7

G – Tre' Williams 6-5 195 So. 4.3

F – Brandon Johnson 6-8 220 Sr. 8.9

C – Liam Robbins 7-0 235 Jr. 12.3

Reserves– Both Gach, G, 6-6, Jr., 7.5 ppg; Eric Curry, F-C, 6-9, Sr., 3.5 ppg; Isaiah Ihnen, F, 6-9, So., 2.4 ppg; Sam Freeman, C, 6-10, So., 0.9 ppg.

Coach:Richard Pitino 158-131 (9th season overall)

Notable: Senior forward Brandon Johnson had a season-high 26 points on 8-for-9 shooting from three in the overtime win vs. Iowa on Christmas Day. The Gophers were 17-for-43 from three, setting a team record for attempts from beyond the arc. Johnson's three-point percentage in that game was a team record and he tied the single-game record for threes made. The Chicago native is shooting 33% from three this season, but he hasn't been able to come close to duplicating that one record-setting performance. He shot 2-for-11 on threes in the seven games before Iowa. Johnson's shot 1-for-14 from long distance since Dec. 25. The Gophers shot 27-for-68 (39.7%) from three in back-to-back wins vs. St. Louis and Iowa, but they have shot 29.4% from deep this season, last in the Big Ten and 318th nationally.

ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI (15-5, 11-3)

Pos.-Player Ht. Yr. PPG

G – Ayo Dosunmu 6-5 200 Jr. 21.3

G – Trent Frazier 6-2 175 Sr. 10.0

G – Adam Miller 6-3 180 Fr. 8.7

F – Jacob Grandison 6-6 205 Jr. 3.5

C – Kofi Cockburn 7-0 285 So. 17.4

Key reserves– Andre Curbelo, G, 6-1, Fr., 7.6 ppg; Giorgi Bezhanishivili, F, 6-9, Jr., 5.7 ppg; Da'Monte Williams, G, 6-3, Sr., 5.2 ppg; Coleman Hawkins, F, 6-10, Fr., 1.5 ppg.

Coach: Brad Underwood 171-81 (10th season)

Notable: The Illini are tied with Ohio State for the longest current win streak in the Big Ten at six straight games. But it hasn't come without some close calls, including four wins by single digits. Illinois has one of the Big Ten's top offenses, ranking second in points per game (78.4), first in field goal percentage (48.7) and third in three-point percentage (36.8) in league games.

Fuller's score prediction (Picks record 13-9):Illinois 74, Gophers 68.