After a week between games, Illinois takes on Nebraska

Illinois+Kendrick+Nunn+%2825%29+attempts+a+contested+layup+during+the+game+against+No.+22+Ohio+State+at+State+Farm+Center+on+Saturday%2C+Feb.+15%2C+2014.+The+Illini+lost+48-39.

Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn (25) attempts a contested layup during the game against No. 22 Ohio State at State Farm Center on Saturday, Feb. 15, 2014. The Illini lost 48-39.

This time of year, basketball coaches like practice. The players, they just want to get to the next game.

So with a week off between games, the Illinois basketball players are getting a little bit antsy for game day.

“Normally whenever you have a few days in between, you get used to playing every two days, three days,” senior forward John Ekey said. “After an entire week it feels like it’s been awhile.”

Illinois last played on Feb. 19 at Minnesota, a game the Illini won behind Kendrick Nunn’s 19 points. Wednesday they will tip off from State Farm Center for the first time in 11 days, the opponent being a scorching hot Nebraska squad.

Head coach John Groce said his team used the extra time off with two separate two-day practice increments. Friday and Saturday the Illini focused on themselves. Monday and Tuesday the emphasis turned to the Cornhuskers.

“This break was good for us, to come practice more and focus more on us,” center Nnanna Egwu said. “I thought we really improved this week, in terms of the things we do as a team.”

For Egwu, the extended time off might have come at a bad time. The junior had strung together three games with 11 or more rebounds. Against Minnesota he had 11 boards and added 14 points, a season high.

But his performance was overshadowed by Nunn, whose 19 points tied a career high. Nunn’s performance garnered him Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors this week, becoming the first Illini to win that honor, which the Big Ten started awarding during the 2010-11 season.

Nunn said it’s a blessing that he is being recognized for how hard he works. He also said he was definitely “in my zone last game.”

Ekey thought it was easy to see Nunn was on another level against the Gophers.

“It was one of those things that we see in practice and in open gym,” Ekey said. “He just gets into that zone, that unconscious, kind of not thinking about it so much — just playing the game. You can always tell with guys like that, they get out there and play.”

“He was letting it fly and it was good.”

Groce said he thought having a presence like Nunn — who hit five threes against Minnesota — really opens up the floor and complements leading scorer Rayvonte Rice.

“It’s late February and, in a lot of cases, we’ve rode (Rice) like a horse,” Groce said. “I do think the great thing for him is we’ve got some other guys starting to grow and develop. That’s taken a lot of pressure off of him.”

If the pressure has been getting to Rice, it’s not easy to tell. The 6-foot-4 guard won’t tell you what he’s thinking and won’t admit when things are wearing on him.

When asked if he was tired of practice after a week between games, he said, “Oh no, I love getting better. Just try to be 1 percent better every day.”

Coming from a guy who chiseled 30 pounds from his frame since arriving at Illinois in the summer of 2012, it’s easy to believe.

Illinois will try to get its revenge against Nebraska after losing to the Huskers 67-58 on Feb. 12. Nebraska comes into the game on a five-game winning streak that includes a road win over Michigan State.

“They’re playing as good as they’ve played in (head coach Tim) Miles’ two years since he’s been there,” Groce said.

And while Groce might enjoy the practices as much as the games, the players are ready to get back in the spotlight.

“Yeah,” Nunn said. “It’s been a while.”

Sean can be reached at [email protected] and @sean_hammond.