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Game Preview: Illinois vs Nebraska

The Fighting Illini welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers into the State Farm Center for a crucial matchup on Senior Night.

Jaylon Tate is back for the Illini
Jaylon Tate is back for the Illini
Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois ESPN Logo

Wednesday, March 4, 2015
9:00 pm CT

Illinois (18-11, 8-8) vs Nebraska (13-15, 5-10)

Location: State Farm Center | Champaign, IL
Television/Stream: BTN | BTN2Go
Announcers: Eric Collins and Shon Morris
Opposing SB Nation SiteCorn Nation

RPI Ranking: Illinois: 58 | Nebraska: 123
KenPom Ranking: Illinois: 57 | Nebraska: 128

The Illinois Fighting Illini (18-11, 8-8) are coming off perhaps their most dominant win in the conference season last Saturday over the Northwestern. Finally fully healthy, the team hung 86 points on the Wildcats in a game that wasn't close from the opening tip. Five players scored in double-figures including Rayvonte Rice, who is averaging just over 18 points a game his last three contests. It's fair to say Rice is now fully healthy and will be a huge part of the Illini's attempt to reach the field of 68. Currently seated in eighth place in the standings, John Groce's squad will attempt to win its final two regular season games to try and avoid the 8-9 matchup in the Big Ten Tournament and (more importantly) try to earn an NCAA tournament berth.

But before they worry about Selection Sunday, they've got to take care of business Wednesday night at home against the Nebraska Cornhuskers (13-15, 5-10). Many believed the Huskers would return to the Big Dance coming into the 2014-15 season, but they've never really clicked on either side of the ball and are only ahead of two other teams in the conference standings. They currently sit at two games under .500 overall and are desperate to receive a bid for any type of postseason tournament (NIT, CBI, etc.). Nebraska is coming off of a humiliating 24-point loss on the road to the Buckeyes. They're just 1-10 away from Pinnacle Bank Arena this year.

The Huskers and the Illini last met up in Lincoln in early January, and it remains the only loss the Illini have suffered against a team outside of the top 100 in RPI, losing 53-43. Illinois leads the all-time series against Nebraska 11-4 and are 8-1 against them in Champaign. They'll look to finish the season with an impressive 14-2 mark at home, the first time that has been done since the 2010-2011 season. They'll also aim for their ninth Big Ten win, which would be the most games won in the conference since John Groce took over the program.

Probable Starters:

Illinois Fighting Illini:

  1. Ahmad Starks | SR
  2. Kendrick Nunn | SO
  3. Rayvonte Rice | SR
  4. Malcolm Hill | SO
  5. Nnanna Egwu | SR

Nebraska Cornhuskers:

  1. Benny Parker | JR
  2. Terran Petteway | JR
  3. Shavon Shields | JR
  4. Leslee Smith | SR
  5. Walter Pitchford | JR

Nebraska's Four Factors:

Offense Defense
Effective FG % 47.2% (250th) 46.6% (79th)
Turnover % 19.7% (212th) 20.8% (80th)
Offensive Rebounding % 25.1% (326th) 30.5% (143rd)
FTA/FGA 35.9 (206th) 37.7 (199th)

Offensive analysis:

In a word, dreadful. The Huskers rank 312th in the nation in points per game and shoot just 28 percent from behind the arc (338th). They come in at 326th in the country in offensive rebounds per game and are 321st in assists per game. Need I say more? Their offense runs through Terran Petteway, and unfortunately for Nebraska fans, he's about it on that side of the ball. Petteway accounts for 34 percent of the offense's total shots and plays just under 36 minutes a game for Tim Miles's team. Shavon Shields has shown flashes of ability in the post and currently leads the team in rebounding with six per game, but he's struggled recently scoring a combined nine points in his last three starts. Nebraska's shortcomings can mostly be pointed to the fact that those two guys are the only major contributors on offense.

Defense analysis:

Better, but still not great. The Huskers have managed to work their way up into the top 100 in the nation in points allowed per game (62.7) and are a mediocre 130th in rebounds per contest (24.2). Their two-point field goal defense is much better than their defense from behind the three-point line, but neither cracks the top eighty in the country. Lately, however, the Nebraska defense has struggled to contain opponents' offenses regardless. They allowed 42 in the first half against the Buckeyes in an 81-57 loss this past week and a similar 42 against Iowa in a 74-46 defeat last weekend. The Huskers will play mostly man-to-man but have been known to switch to a 2-3 zone every once and a while.

Senior Night:

The Illini will be celebrating senior night on Wednesday, in front of what promises to be a good crowd. Here's who will be playing their last home game in the orange and blue against Nebraska:

Nnanna Egwu has been one of the Illini's leaders on and off the court this year, and has been an especially incredible presence defensively. He currently owns the record for most blocks ever by an Illini with 193 (also good for fourth-best in the Big Ten) and he ranks second on the team in rebounds per game (5.7). Egwu has started for three of his four years here at Illinois and had a career-high 16 points as a sophomore against Ohio State in January of 2013. He is majoring in communication.

Rayvonte Rice has been an all-star throughout the duration of his two years on the Illinois roster. The former Centennial high school star returned home to Champaign after transferring from Drake a couple years ago and hasn't looked back since. He currently leads the team in points per game (16.3), rebounds per game (6.6), steals per game (1.9), and minutes per game (29.9) and that's after being out for over a month with a broken hand injury. Rice may be best remembered for his step-back buzzer-beating three against the Missouri Tigers this past December, but he has contributed to the team since the moment he stepped on campus. Rice is majoring in sociology.

Ahmad Starks transferred from Oregon State to Illinois last season, but had to sit out due to NCAA eligibility rules. He's started 17 out of the Illini's 29 games this year and ranks second on the team in assists per game (2.4). He has made 45 three-pointers (some of them more ill-advised and deeper than others) and posted a season-high 19 points against the Iowa Hawkeyes on the road. Jaylon Tate was subbed into the starting rotation for Starks when he struggled out of the gate in conference play, but Ahmad has been playing extremely well as of late and will be a key piece down the stretch of the season. He is also majoring in sociology.

Ryan Schmidt is one of the best stories to emerge from this basketball season. He was a senior manager for the Illini until mid-way through the Big Ten season, when John Groce moved him over to the active roster due to injuries and suspensions. It was a truly special moment for Schmidt and the fans when he entered the game against Michigan on February 12th and played out the final fourteen seconds of the contest. Schmidt is majoring in accounting.

John Groce previews Nebraska:


TCR Prediction: Illinois 70, Nebraska 56

KenPom Prediction: Illinois 63, Nebraska 54 (83% win probability)