Just about halfway through the season, the Illini have been on a rollercoaster with many ups and downs.
The last time I wrote an Illinois men’s basketball preview was before the Penn State game. At this point, the roller coaster was at a high coming off the win against Texas. The Illini were feeling unbeatable and firing on all cylinders.
Against Penn State, Mizzou and Northwestern, the Illini were lifeless, unmotivated, and in complete disarray. Their offense was stagnant with poor shot selection, and on defense players missed assignments and were out-toughed.
That changed on Saturday, as the Illini prevailed against a top-20 Wisconsin, looking more like the Illini team that beat Texas. They showed signs of a new, improved offense and increased effort on defense.
The Illini (10-5, 1-3 Big Ten) will hope to even out the roller coaster Tuesday night against Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers’ Season So Far
While Nebraska has not finished higher than 13th in the conference under Fred Hoiberg, this isn’t your typical Nebraska team. This is a battle-tested, tough team whose strength of schedule is 14th nationally.
Nebraska is 9-7 and 9th in the Big Ten with an impressive win over No. 7 Creighton and a close overtime loss to No 4. Purdue. They have also lost to Andre Curbelo’s St. John’s and Indiana. Recently, they have won 3 out of their last 4 games, including W’s against Iowa and Minnesota.
Nebraska is an old-school Big Ten basketball team. They like to score in the paint, wearing down opposing teams. Illinois fans will have flashbacks to Kofi Cockburn, as Nebraska will situate its offense around the paint drawing fouls or scoring tough layups.
The Cornhuskers have found shooting when they need it this season, but they haven’t been especially effective. They shoot 29% from three and rank 153rd in offensive efficiency. Forcing Nebraska to take outside shots is key to slowing them down.
Nebraska’s defense is the strength of the Cornhuskers as they rank 44th in defensive efficiency according to KenPom. Their starting lineup ranges from 6-foot-4 to 6-foot-7, with each player having the ability to play many positions. This results in opposing teams struggling to get to the rim, forcing them to take bad shots.
Players to Watch
After missing the first five games of the season, Walker has made a significant impact on both ends of the court. Walker is the primary scorer and is a crafty, physical player.
The 6-foot-9 center averages 14.5 points and 8 rebounds and shoots 62% from the field. He often receives the ball near the rim and bangs the defender with his shoulder to create an easy layup or shot.
Walker only shoots 46% from the line, so forcing him to make free throws will slow him down. He also draws some of the toughest defensive assignments, as he limited Purdue’s Zach Edey to 11 points.
6-foot-7 Sam Griesel is Nebraska’s primary ball handler. While Griesel does average 11 points, he is more of a facilitator for the Cornhusker offense, passing the ball to create opportunities. For most of the game, Terrence Shannon will guard Griesel because he matches his height and can pressure the ball.
Nebraska’s spark off the bench is Tominaga, who has been a clutch and crafty player for the Cornhuskers this season. He averages 9 points this season and leads the team in three-point percentage. He played especially well against Purdue, scoring 19 points, including a clutch three to send the game to overtime.
As a 6-foot-6 Alabama transfer, Juwan Gary has made a significant impact on the defensive end. He averages 1.5 steals, which ranks fourth in the Big Ten, and has 6.7 rebounds per game. Gary is a good defender, and often plays center for the Cornhuskers when they decide to go small.
Emmanuel Bandoume l- SMU transfer who is a consistent player for the Cornhuskers, averaging 9 points and 5 rebounds, and is a tough defender.
CJ Wilcher - Last year, Wilcher was one of the most effective sixth men in the Big Ten. This season, he averages 9 points and leads Nebraska in made three-pointers.
What does Illinois need to do to win?
The problem for Illinois hasn’t been games against ranked opponents. Illinois has a 3-2 record against ranked opponents compared to a 1-3 record against unranked major conference foes. The Illini need to increase their level of play against unranked opponents to be successful in the Big Ten this season.
After the indefinite departure of Skky Clark, Jayden Epps became even more important. Illinois struggles when there is little ball movement on offense which leads to players isolating one-on-one to create shots. When Jayden Epps facilitated the offense, Illinois’ playmakers can focus on scoring, rather than passing.
This game is an excellent test for Illinois, against a competitive Big Ten opponent. Nebraska is an unproven team who has kept games close against top teams. Increased effort on both ends of the ball and high-quality shots by playmakers will be crucial for the Illini to beat the Cornhuskers.