After a 64-57 upset victory over No. 11 Maryland, Malcolm Hill and the Illinois Fighting Illini are in Lincoln to face the Nebraska Cornhuskers on Sunday night. Sophomore forward Malcolm Hill stepped up in a big way against the Terrapins as he logged a career-high 28 points and 7 rebounds on 9/18 shooting. He'll look to lead the offense again as star senior guard Rayvonte Rice is out for the next 4-6 weeks with a broken left hand.
On the other side, Tim Miles' Cornhuskers have been a major disappointment this season. After ranking No. 21 in both major preseason polls, Nebraska has logged defeats against Creighton, Incarnate Word, and Hawaii. The team started Big Ten play with losses against Indiana and Iowa before capturing a win over Rutgers on Thursday.
Illinois leads the all-time series against the Cornhuskers 11-4. The two teams split their games last season; Nebraska won 67-58 in Lincoln and the Illini captured 60-49 victory in Champaign.
Illinois Fighting Illini:
- Jaylon Tate | SO
- Kendrick Nunn | SO
- Aaron Cosby | JR
- Malcolm Hill | SO
- Nnanna Egwu | SR
- Benny Parker | JR
- Terran Petteway | JR
- Shavon Shields | JR
- David Rivers | SR
- Walter Pitchford | JR
Keys to the Game:
1. This isn't the same Nebraska team from December
The Cornhuskers lost to Rhode Island, Creighton, Incarnate Word and Hawaii in the non-conference. That's not good. In fact, that's at least two or three bad losses they've inked on their resume that could hurt them come March. But it's important to note that the team the Illini will be playing isn't the same one that lost to Incarnate Word. Two of their senior leaders, Leslee Smith and Moses Abraham, were out for almost the entirety of the non-conference season due to injuries, and both have now returned to Nebraska's lineup as of this week.
As an interesting side note, Smith tore his ACL before the season began in practice and was one of their more veteran players. Abraham broke his hand in a freak accident in practice was out for more than a month before returning to the lineup this past week against Rutgers. Sound familiar? The Illini have suffered identical injuries with two of their senior leaders, Tracy Abrams and Rayvonte Rice respectively.
Smith and Abraham are impact players who add size and rebounding to the Huskers and the Illini will have to gameplan for them appropriately. But what's most important is to not discount TIm Miles's squad, especially when you're playing them in Lincoln, because they're no longer the same group that dropped four bad games in December to mid-major opponents.
2. Keep Nebraska at the arch
The Cornhuskers are shooting 30.6% from behind the arch. That's good for only 267th in the entire country. But those numbers jump to 50.2% field goal shooting when they enter two-point range, and only continue to rise when they're inside the paint. So it's simple: deny the lanes and keep Nebraska on the three-point line, and you're in pretty good shape. Their offense is very one-dimensional and frankly just not that good; outside of Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields, who make up 55% of the Huskers' total scoring, there isn't anyone else who stands out offensively. They rank 210th in the nation in points per game, which is 177 spots lower than where the Illini sit.
Other Husker contributors like Walter Pitchford and Benny Parker have struggled significantly this season, and even though Parker leads the team in three-point shooting, he's only 10-for-22 on the year--he won't be taking many shots from out there. Forcing the Huskers to stay outside of the paint and keeping them on the three-point line will be huge in determining who wins this game.
3. Play through Nnanna Egwu
The Illini offense was tremendously successful against Maryland in part because it ran through Nnanna Egwu in the post. Groce tried to establish a post presence early and Egwu had five points in as many minutes to start out the game against the Terps. He ended with a season-high nine rebounds and was a defensive masterpiece that helped Illinois spring the upset. He was tremendous on the 1-5 switches where he was forced to guard the athletic freshman Melo Trimble and even blocked several of his shots. Run the offense through Egwu and allow him to do his thing on defense and you're setting yourself up for victory.
This is a huge game. When taking the schedule into account, the time for Illinois to make a move is now. Much has been made about the team's first five conference matchups including four road games. But after this coming Wednesday's rivalry game in Evanston against Northwestern, four of the next five will be at home in the State Farm Center. An Illini victory on Sunday would put the team right back on track record-wise and it could potentially lead to a long conference winning streak--even without their best player Rayvonte Rice.
The question is, can Illinois carry the momentum from their upset win against Maryland over to their stiff Sunday night test against Nebraska? I, unfortunately, think the answer is no. The Illini scored 64 points this past Wednesday and Malcolm Hill contributed 28 of them. Even if Hill goes off again, beating the Huskers on the road is a very tough assignment and I think Illinois will fall just short.
Nebraska 60, Illinois 57