Will Kendrick Nunn and the Fighting Illini take another step forward on Saturday against Nebraska? To help us get a feel for how Husker fans feel about the upcoming game, Corn Nation's Patrick Gerhart was kind enough to join us and answer some questions.
1. Tim Miles' Cornhuskers (10-8, 2-3) are coming off a pretty rough 2014-15 season, but they return some talented pieces. What were expectations like heading into the season? And how do you see Nebraska stacking up in the Big Ten?
While 2014-15 season was rough, a lot of the expectations coming into it were from the fact that we probably overachieved the year before. There were a lot of great close wins against some top notch teams that could have easily gone the other way. Last year was basically all the cracks that were there coming through and the realization that the team was not as good as we had believed.
Expectations coming into this year were good, but nothing great. We lost Petteway who was a big contributor the last couple of year but have replaced him with Andrew White III who has done really well for us.
Most knew that we were bringing in a lot of freshman and that would take time to develop. Many of them have been pretty good contributors so far this year but still need another year or so to really help us get to the next level. Another area that was pretty glaring is the hole we have under the basket. Everyone know that to compete, especially in a conference like the Big Ten, you need to have someone down below to take up space.
As a whole, I would say that most of the fans hoped we would compete for at least the middle tier of the Big Ten and I still think it's a possibility. Right now we just need to slowly take down the bottom of the conference and build up the resume. As the last two games showed there is a big gap between the bottom of the conference and the middle. If Nebraska could make it's way up I think they could end the year with some good momentum going into the next season.
2. Speaking of Tim Miles, Nebraska has experienced a pretty noticeable decline from an overall record standpoint since making the 2014 NCAA Tournament. I assume most fans are still relatively high on the fourth year head coach, but have opinions started to shift at all?
You are starting to see pockets of fans questioning if Miles is the guy. It's nothing major yet because it could heat up if they can't pull off a couple of upsets in the next couple of months. If we don't make one of the post season tournaments then I can see this offseason being a long one and the grumblings getting louder.
With that said he is still pretty revered overall in the state. He's a good personality and represents the university well. He also doesn't sugar coat the problems we have been facing and that can go a long way in this state. He's a great plains guy from South Dakota so he gets the mentality of the folks out here. He's coaching at a school with a ton of support but little past success so that helps him out a lot.
He has recruited fairly well for the team and really needs to keep developing these young players. A lot of what he needs to succeed are there, he just needs the time to develop them. Another area that Miles has been working on is getting us a decent big man. It's been a long time since Nebraska has had someone who could hold their own under the basket. Once he get's someone reliable I think that's when you will see the team take the next step and start competing in the conference.
3. Kansas transfer Andrew White has been spectacular for Nebraska in his first year of eligibility with the program (team-high 17.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 52.0 FG%). For Illinois fans that haven't seen him play, what are his strengths and weaknesses? Also, how well (or poorly) has he fit in alongside Shavon Shields?
White has basically come in and replaced Petteway on the team. He can score from inside and outside of the arch pretty well if you let him. Give him space and he will kill threes so guard him closely. Coming in from Kansas he was touted as a big scorer and has lived up to the hype so far. While Nebraska has been a pretty good defensive team under Miles out offense has needed a kickstart and White has helped contribute to that. I think being under Miles has also improved his defense though I would like to see him be more aggressive when we don't have the ball.
White and Shields are easily the two best players on our team right now. They are both fairly consistent and keep opposing defenses busy. I would, however, like to see him take on more of a leadership role on the court. We have a tendency to lose focus at times and I think a guy of his stature can shake them out of it when it's needed.
4. Nebraska landed two huge 2015 commitments from Chicago natives Ed Morrow (Simeon) and Glenn Watson (St. Joseph), who happens to be the younger half-brother of former Illini star Demetri McCamey. How have the two freshmen performed so far? Did John Groce make a mistake in largely ignoring them?
Both freshman hae played well for us this year. They both came into the season with pretty decent hype and they've lived up to it so far. It was really great to see both of them come off the bench earlier in the year and help out. We got a pretty good idea of what they can accomplish and what the future might hold.
They are still having their growing pains and that's why they are still on the bench. Each of them have had their good and bad games and their inexperience shows on some of our blowouts. For them to get to the next level they really need to work on their defensive skills.
Ask me in a year or two if Groce missed out on them. If they keep improving like I think they will then I would say yes but you then have to look at the coaching situation and add that into the equation. Yes, they're great athletes and basketball players but they could always flounder under the wrong system.
5. According to KenPom, (No. 96) Illinois is a four-point favorite over (No. 105 Nebraska). What's your prediction for the game? Do you anticipate the Huskers giving the Illini some trouble in their lone scheduled matchup of the season?
If this was a week ago I would say that Illinois should not have too much trouble with Nebraska but they've seemed to come together recently and looked pretty solid in their last two games. Yes, they were blowout wins against Rutgers and Minnesota but if anything it showed that we could play a complete game without losing the lead. Illinois hasn't been too stellar this year either but a home crowd can always help.
I also try not to be a homer on predictions and Nebraska is playing away at a fairly hostile environment. For some reason I think these teams are fairly comparable and this could turn into who makes the least amount of mistakes. I think it will be a close one and am going to go with Illinois 78 Nebraska 76. I hope I'm wrong!