With Illinois’ season already in the toilet, is it bad if I wouldn’t be totally completely upset if Nebraska won? Forget the fact that I think Tim Miles is a swell guy — right now, Nebraska is projected as one of the first four out of the tournament. I think this is a travesty. I know their SOS isn’t spectacular, and they don’t have an abundance of quality wins, but 20-8 overall and 11-4 in the Big Ten is pretty damn solid if you ask me. More reason that Brad Underwood should get his guys fired up, especially considering how the Illini lost the first matchup with Nebrasketball.
So far this season
You already know its record, but Nebraska really has pieced together a very nice season. Again, not a lot of major wins here; just consistency. Early on in the season, they beat then-No. 17 Minnesota by double digits. The Huskers scored 104 in a win against UTSA. They beat Northwestern in Rosemont, Michigan at home and most recently defeated the Maryland Terrapins.
Tim Miles is a great guy. I’m not sure how I know that, but I am certain of it. Remember when he just totally out-coached John Groce at home by double digits? It was a 78-67 loss on Jan. 16, 2016. I don’t know why I remember that, except that Illinois had no business losing to Nebrasketball in 2016. Now, I’m kind of expecting it.
But anyway, the point here is that Miles has already surpassed his best season (in terms of win total) since his first season at Nebraska in 2012-13. His only NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2014, when the Huskers were 19-13 overall (11-7 in conference). This is a solid Nebraska team. They won’t necessarily blow you out of the water, but like we have already seen this year, there are a few guys who can really do some damage.
Players to Watch
Two names that should really be kept on the lookout for this game: Isaiah Roby and James Palmer, Jr.
Let’s start with Palmer.
Since Illinois and Nebraska last met on Jan. 15, Palmer has been pretty much unstoppable. He is averaging 23.4 points in those nine games. It should also be noted that Palmer hit the game winning three-pointer against Illinois.
The other man, Isaiah Roby, has started to come alive in the second half of the season as well. The sophomore from Dixon, Illinois — yep, probably another solid recruit we missed out on. Shoutout to non-suburban northern Illinois — has tallied double-digit points in four of the last five games. He can also do this:
Not that I doubt our defense or anything, but I think Underwood will need to watch out for the athleticism here. Also, it would be nice if Illinois had players that could do that.
What can Illinois do to give itself a chance?
Honestly, the Nebraska game goes down as another “should have been” Illinois victory that went awry, and Illinois did not have a bad game that day. Aside from Roby and Palmer, no Husker really had an outstanding day in any category. Illinois will need to limit these two: Roby had 10 boards in that first matchup and Palmer dropped 24 points. It was really the start of his hot streak, which he has continued through this week.
If Greg Eboigbodin, who showed some pretty good rebounding ability against Indiana earlier this week, can crash the boards, the Illini will be helped significantly.
Additionally, Illinois needs to clamp down on shooting. Nebraska only shot 41 percent from the field in the first matchup, which would be one of Illinois’ better defensive Big Ten performances. If they can work on those two things, they actually have a shot. Not a great one, but a shot nonetheless.
I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if Illinois wins more than one of the remaining five Big Ten games (including a Big Ten Tournament game), I would be shocked. Rutgers is a possible win. Nebraska is not. With the NCAA as a very real possibility for the Huskers — albeit, a somewhat outside shot at the moment — they need a strong finish and some help from other bubble teams to do that.
Let’s not forget about how poorly Illinois’ defense has been playing. Conference opponents are shooting something like 60 percent against Illinois. It continues on Sunday afternoon.
Don’t forget to throw in a fake rally with about five minutes remaining in the game.
Nebraska 80, Illinois 73