It’s that time of year once again, Illini fans.
Gone are the previous two seasons where Brad Underwood’s Illini weren’t even sniffing a postseason berth.
Now, the Illini (17-9 overall, 9-6 Big Ten) are looking to secure a spot in the Big Dance and improve their seeding position. Although a regular season Big Ten title is likely out of the question, a strong finish in the final five games of conference play can be key to Illinois’ postseason standing.
First up: new Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg and the Cornhuskers.
So Far This Season
Nebraska has not exactly had a shining season to date (7-19 overall). Fred Hoiberg’s inaugural season back in the college ranks after a tough stint with the Chicago Bulls was not expected to be great, but things got off to a very tough start for Big Red.
They opened the season with back-to-back home losses against UC-Riverside and Southern Utah. Not exactly teams that are expected to make a splash in the NCAA Tournament. The only major D-I wins Nebraska can claim from the non-conference season were two wins in the Cayman Islands Classic against Washington State and Southern Florida (teams with a combined 25-28 record on the season, and are ninth and tenth in their respective conferences).
In conference, Nebraska has claimed just two wins, but both were actually against solid teams (AKA teams not named Northwestern). The first was a 70-56 win over Purdue at home on Dec. 15, and the other was another home win, this time over Iowa, by a score of 76-70 on Jan. 7.
Since the win against Iowa, Nebraska has gone 0-11 in conference, and the Cornhuskers are 0-9 on the road this season.
NOTE: Though their road record is far from exceptional, they did narrowly lose to two very good Big Ten teams on the road: a 75-72 loss at Rutgers on Jan. 25, and a 72-70 loss at Maryland on Feb. 11.
Players to Watch
Hoiberg has had to do a lot of work to fill out the roster that was left mostly empty after Tim Miles’ departure from the program. The Cornhuskers currently have three players averaging north of 10 points per game: Senior guard Haanif Cheatham (12.5 ppg), sophomore guard Cam Mack (12.0) and junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. (11.8). These three are a lethal scoring combo, although Cheatham is much more consistent shooting the ball (49.4% FG) than is Mack (38.7%) or Burke Jr. (39.8%). Cheatham is undoubetly the guard that Trent or Ayo will need to keep their eyes on. All three of these guys, coincidentally, are transfers. Cheatham spent two years at Marquette and last played at Florida Gulf Coast in 2018-2019. Mack started at Stephen F. Austin, transferred to a community college, and found his way to Nebraska. Burke Jr. started at Robert Morris Univeristy. Both Cheatam and Mack shoot around 33% from deep, while Burke Jr. is just below the 30% mark.
The other guy Underwood will need to gameplan for is Thorir Thorbjarnarson (an A+ name if I’ve ever seen one). While not an elite scorer or rebounder for Hoiberg & Co., he still puts up right around nine points and five boards a game. At 6-6, he will provide a matchup problem. Especially since he is the only Husker to shoot better than 40% from deep (41.2%).
All in all, Nebraska is very guard heavy but has good support in Thorbjarnarson. It should be intersting hoe Underwood gameplans on the defensive side of the ball.
It is no secret that Nebraska has had a terrible year, which was mostly to be expected given the circumstances, but the 0-9 record away from Pinnacle Bank Arena speaks for itself. That being said, this is not a game that Ayo, Kofi or the rest of the Illini need to take lightly. A loss at home to this Nebraska team would more than likely put the Illini back on the NCAA Tournament bubble — not the place they want to be. Let’s not forget that this team has lost more than a few close games this year. With nothing to play for, the best they can do is ruin other teams’ tournament hopes.
Illinois seems to have a big size advantage here. I don’t see anyone able to defense Kofi or Giorgi effectively in the post. If shots can go down early, I think Kofi could have a really big game. If nothing else, he and Giorgi need to rebound the ball. It will be nice to have Ayo back once again, and if Alan and Trent can hit the outside shots they need to, I don’t see any issue with a solid Illini win here, as long as Underwood doesn’t have them come out of the gate sleepwalking.
Final: Illinois 73, Nebraska 60