After win, Illinois shouldn’t overlook Nebraska

Nothing comes easy in the Big Ten. Illinois knows that better than anyone.

The Illini have already suffered defeats to Northwestern and Purdue, two of the conference’s worst teams. John Groce has repeated throughout the season that any Big Ten team could win on any given day. Nebraska is no different.

Illinois will face Nebraska on the road Wednesday in a game that is essentially a must-win. If Illinois loses, say goodbye to any NCAA tournament chances this season.

Nebraska might be just 12-10 (4-6 Big Ten) with a basketball pedigree similar to that of the Charlotte Bobcats, but the Cornhuskers are as tough as a team comes. Illinois lost 80-57 in its first Big Ten game in Lincoln almost exactly two years ago on Feb. 18, 2012. This Nebraska team is just as scrappy and now even has a go-to player.

Nebraska is surprisingly ranked No. 67 in the nation defensively, according to Ken Pomeroy’s defensive efficiency. There isn’t one individual standout on this above-average defense, but rather Nebraska’s defensive strength can be attributed to its ability to limit easy buckets.

Nebraska is ranked a solid 47th in the nation in turnovers while allowing the 22nd fewest offensive rebounds in the nation. If Nebraska holds onto the ball while limiting second-chance points, it will be tough for Illinois’ struggling offense to score.

The Cornhuskers also benefit from having a legitimate go-to player in Terran Petteway. The Texas Tech transfer is averaging 17.5 points and 5.3 rebounds per game in his first eligible season in Lincoln. The 6-foot-6 guard-forward will be fed the ball early and often in Nebraska’s Illinois-esque offensive attack.

We may have found a Big Ten team that’s actually as bad offensively as Illinois. Nebraska is 280th in the nation in points per game at 67.1, just decimal points away from Illinois’ average of 67.3. Both teams are also among the worst passing teams in the country (both ranked in the 330s in assists per game) and rely heavily on their leading scorers (Petteway for Nebraska, Rayvonte Rice for Illinois). The separating factor between these struggling teams might be home-court advantage.

Nebraska has won its last three home games against Indiana, Minnesota and then-No. 17 Ohio State. Not too shabby for a team tied for ninth in the Big Ten. Nebraska’s lone home loss inside the conference was a narrow one-point defeat against Michigan on Jan. 9. The Wolverines needed a layup by Derrick Walton Jr. with 21.8 seconds left to escape with the win. Nebraska head coach Tim Miles gets the most out of his players, even if it’s not enough to win on most nights.

Illinois hadn’t won a true road game since Nov. 26 against UNLV before it beat Penn State in State College. This has “trap game” written all over it for Illinois. The Illini are coming off their first win in more than a month with No. 22 Ohio State coming to town Saturday. The Illini shouldn’t be overlooking any opponent after an eight-game losing streak, but they’re only college kids. There’s no denying it’s easier to get up for a weekend home game against a ranked team than a midweek matchup against a bottom-of-the-conference team. This is where leadership comes in handy.

The upperclassmen need to step up against Nebraska, like for real this time. I can’t speak for the locker room leadership that has taken place this season, but on-court leaders have seriously lacked for Illinois. The combined four points between Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu last time out was unacceptable. The experienced guys on this roster need to start playing that way or Groce will continue to throw freshmen on the court.

I’m hoping Groce once again provides a steady diet of Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill. Nothing seemed fluky about their combined 30-point performance against Penn State, even if Nunn made four 3-pointers, despite not making even a third of his attempts from behind the arc on the season.

Nothing excites a fan base more during a down season than a youth infusion. The fans want to see more minutes for the freshmen, and it’s not like they don’t deserve the playing time anyway. I want to see a Jaylon Tate, Nunn, Hill, Austin Colbert and Maverick Morgan lineup on the floor at some point Wednesday. Why not make a matchup between two bottom-feeder Big Ten teams more watchable? It couldn’t hurt.

Illinois can’t take Nebraska lightly. Groce is right; on any day, on any court, in any game, a Big Ten team is capable of winning. If Illinois is expecting a cake walk, they might be in store for a repeat of 2012.

Michael is a senior in Media. He can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @The_MDubb