Illinois men’s basketball heads west to take on Nebraska in Lincoln

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Photo courtesy of David Craan/Illini Athletics

Forward Omar Payne slam dunks the ball during the Maryland game on Jan. 6. The Illini will be on the road against Nebraska on Tuesday.

By Christian Jones, Staff Writer

After a 4-0 start in league play, the Illinois men’s basketball team sits atop the Big Ten standings. On Tuesday, the Illini travel to Lincoln, where they will face the Nebraska Cornhuskers, who are in search of their first conference win.

“Coming off a hard-fought win against Maryland, I was really pleased with the job that Da’Monte and Trent Frazier did in the second half of that game,” head coach Brad Underwood said. “It’s now on to a Nebraska team that is 0-4 but probably could’ve won a couple games pretty easily.”

To no surprise, Underwood is taking this matchup seriously despite the two teams being on opposite ends of the standings. The Illini have won four straight against Nebraska, but the Cornhuskers have put up a stronger fight at home. Of the last three matchups that were played in Lincoln, two were losses. Most recently, the Illini scrapped out a five-point win in overtime.

In that game three Cornhuskers scored 15 points or more, and two of them returned to Nebraska this season: juniors Trey McGowens and Lat Mayen. Both had larger roles within the offense last year, but new faces have stolen the spotlight. 

McGowens’ younger brother, freshman Bryce McGowens, leads the team in scoring this season, averaging 15.7 points per game, and senior transfer guard Alonzo Verge Jr. is not far behind at 14.3 points per game.

Nebraska hasn’t had much success this year, but defensively they’ve seen a few bright spots. They’re among the nation’s leaders in paint defense, and they are 29th in the nation in total steals.

“They’ll throw the kitchen sink, I imagine, at Kofi in terms of doubles and triples,” Underwood said. “They’re out there in passing lanes. We gotta be ball tough, as any other game in this league. It’s going to be challenging.”

Junior Kofi Cockburn has seen more than his fair share of double teams this season, and he’s handled it well. He’s averaged 24.5 points per game over the last four games, which were all wins. Against Maryland, he was held to just seven points in the first half and still managed to end the game with 23 points and 18 rebounds.

Cockburn was named Co-Big Ten Player of the Week, along with Wisconsin’s Johnny Davis, after his dominant game against Maryland and a 29-point outing at Minnesota. The team as a whole received some recognition as well.

The Illini were ranked No. 25 in this week’s AP Top-25 poll. It is the first time they’ve been ranked this season since their loss to Cincinnati in late November, though most analytics, including Kenpom, have them firmly within the Top-15.

“I’d probably much rather have the analytics than I would the ranking,” Underwood said. “Those are things that we can really monitor. … All I’m worried about is us. If we get ranked, we get ranked. If not, let’s just keep flying under the radar.” 

 

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