Illinois must maintain high level of intensity against Nebraska


Sustainability. 

It’s a trendy word in environmental circles, but the subject of sustainability can be applied to the trajectory of this Illinois basketball season as well. 

As Illinois’ impressive win over No. 11 Maryland fades farther into the rear-view mirror, one question regarding the Illini’s play stands out in my mind: 

Can the high level of effort the Illini showed Wednesday night to take down the Terps be sustainable as the season grinds along?

I’m not saying John Groce’s team gave up in any of its losses this season, but there was a noticeable difference in the Illini’s level of desire against Maryland. That intensity persisted for a full 40 minutes for the first time this year against a quality opponent, and the team definitely answered the bell after leading scorer Rayvonte Rice went down with a broken hand.   

When Rice got injured, it seemed that Illinois’ season reached a crossroads as the Maryland game approached. And when their backs were against the wall, a fight-or-flight mode kicked in among the remaining healthy Illini, as they strung together their most complete game of the season for a 64-57 home victory. 

Illinois sits at 1-2 in Big Ten play, and it continues its challenging start to conference play with a visit to Nebraska on Sunday night. The Huskers have an identical Big Ten record, and are 9-6 overall with disappointing losses to teams like Rhode Island and Incarnate Word staining their NCAA resume.

Every Big Ten road game brings an added degree of difficulty, and Illinois was unfortunate enough to draw a schedule with four of its first five conference games coming away from home. If you looked at this five-game stretch objectively before the season, it was easy to convince yourself that winning just two of those five would be a decent start for an Illini team that faces a softer stretch of teams in late January and early February. 

But now the Illini are coming off their biggest win of the season, this Nebraska game is here for the taking with a weak Northwestern team up next. If Illinois could just sneak out of Lincoln with a win Sunday, their schedule shapes up favorably until Rice’s expected return in four-to-six weeks. But to win against the Huskers, they’ll have to maintain that maximum effort from the Maryland game, especially on the defensive end.

Illinois’ Malcolm Hill is turning into a great player and is a potent offensive threat, but we can’t expect him to score 28 points every game like he did against Maryland. That’s why the Illini’s defense needs to continue to step up, since we’ve seen how their intense defense has led to a better product on the offensive end with Groce’s teams in the past.

The Illini defense feeds off intensity from senior leader Nnanna Egwu, and Egwu needs to bring that same level of intense focus to Lincoln. When Egwu plays smart and within himself, he’s one of the most dangerous defenders in the country.

While a continued emphasis on effort and intensity will help carry Illinois defensively, it will need to figure out a way to stop Nebraska’s two-headed scoring monster of Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields. Both are averaging close to 20 points per game, and the return of Leslee Smith and Moses Abraham from injury to the Husker lineup should help take some of the load off Petteway and Shields.

Nebraska doesn’t do any one thing particularly well as a team, and they haven’t lived up to lofty preseason expectations that saw them ranked in the Top 25. However, any team with Petteway and Shields is dangerous, and winning is no easy task at Nebraska’s Pinnacle Bank Arena. 

Illinois has a good shot to escape with a victory, but the Illini will have to play like a sustainable team to do it.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.