What Happened Last Year:
The Illini won the lone meeting between these two teams last year in a game played at Pinnacle Bank Arena. After owning just a 30-28 lead going into halftime, Illinois came out firing on all cylinders. Malcolm Hill, Jalen Coleman-Lands and Tracy Abrams were a combined 11-of-16 from the three-point line. Maverick Morgan also added 12 points of his own. The bad news: Illinois returns none of those four to this year’s squad.
How Can Illinois Win:
The good news for the Illini is that the Cornhuskers lose Tai Webster, a senior who averaged 17 points per game and an All-Big Ten Third Team selection. Tim Miles’ squad is also out Nick Fuller, Michael Jacobson, Jeriah Horne, and Ed Morrow Jr., who also added 9.4 points per game and 7.5 rebounds per game last year. Nebraska loses a lot of pieces from an already 12-19 team. The loss of these key pieces, combined with their shooting woes (4-of-15 from three and 21-of-56 from the field) will all be things Brad Underwood takes into consideration when drawing up the game plan this year. Illinois will need some guys to step up this year after returning just 20 points scored against the Huskers last year.
How Can Illinois Lose:
Although Nebraska loses multiple key players, they also bring in transfers Duby Okeke and Isaac Copeland, along with four-star shooting guards Nana Akenten and Thomas Allen. The Cornhuskers will count on this core of newcomers to provide a support group for Glynn Watson Jr. Nebraska has a great group of guards who will create and get buckets if the Illini don’t come to play. They will also outmatch Illinois down low. With six guys on their roster 6-foot-8 or taller, the Huskers’ size could cause some problems for the Illini. If Leron Black gets in foul trouble, Illinois turns to Kipper Nichols to be the physical presence around the rim.
Illinois plays a home-and-home against Nebraska this season. The Illini visit the Cornhuskers in January before welcoming them into State Farm Center in February. Life after Tai Webster will prove too tall a task for Nebraska this year, and Illinois will take the first game by 10-15 points. When the rematch comes around, Underwood’s youthful group will have a couple months of his system under their belts, along with almost a full season of conference play. I expect Illinois to jump all over the Cornhuskers from the tip, and hold a 15-point lead throughout the game. We will start to see the younger guys like Trent Frazier breaking into the lineup and starting winnable conference games like this. All in all, the final in the box score should look similar to last year, but expect the names in it to be much different.