Illinois snapped a four-game losing streak at No. 9 Penn State on Tuesday, and now the Huskers will look to do the same to the Illini as Nebraska will take its 11-game losing streak to Champaign on Monday.
The Illini went 12-21 last season in Brad Underwood’s second season at the helm. They brought back eight of their top nine scorers from that team and added a top-50 recruit in 7-foot behemoth Kofi Cockburn, and now they’re 17-9 and 9-6 in the Big Ten.
“The thing that has always stood out about Brad’s teams is just the pressure that they play with and it’s a team playing with so much confidence right now,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “The guards that they have, especially with Griffin coming off the bench playing with confidence with the way he’s shooting the ball and then those other three guys that start, their ability to get into the paint and make plays.”
Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu is leading the Illini with 16.2 points, 4.3 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game. Senior Andres Feliz is averaging 11.0 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists while junior Trent Frazier is chipping in 9.4 points and 2.0 assists while shooting 34.1% from 3 on 5.1 attempts per game. Alan Griffin, a 6-foot-5 sophomore, is the team’s best 3-point shooter at 41.1% and is contributing 8.6 points per game off the bench.
“Then you have Kofi and their big guys that can just dominate in the paint in there and just have a huge size advantage on us,” Hoiberg said.
The Illini aren’t playing quite the same helter-skelter gambling style of defense as a year ago as the team’s steals numbers are down, but the trade-off has been more consistent on the defensive end as the Illini are holding teams to 63.1 points per game in conference play, first in the Big Ten. The Huskers are still preparing for that relentless pressure.
“You have to be confident, you have to be strong with the ball and strong with your decision-making,” junior Thorir Thorbjarnarson said. “They do as good a job as anyone at pressuring and keeping pressure on the passing lanes and on the ball.”
Cockburn is listed at 7-feet and 290 pounds and he’s averaging 13.6 points and 8.9 rebounds while shooting 52% from the field and 66.9% from the foul line. It’s going to take a team effort for the undersized Huskers to slow him down, especially with Giorgi Bezhanishvili, a 6-foot-9 sophomore, capable of scoring in the post as well (7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds per game).
“Pack the paint,” Thorbjarnarson said. “Be sharp with our rotations. We didn’t do a good enough job in the Michigan State game on closing out to 3-point shooters so I think we just have to be sharper with our rotations. It’s going to be similar to what we’ve been doing with big guys.”
Thorbjarnarson said the Huskers’ effort with that defensive game plan has ebbed and flowed recently. When things start to go south, the team has gone away from some of the stuff they’re supposed to be doing.
“The 3s that we’ve given up lately, they’ve been things that we can control,” Hoiberg said. “Going out and closing out with our hand, you’ve got to have a high-hand closeout even if they’re struggling shooting. We allowed that to happen last game [against Michigan State] with a couple guys that had not been shooting the ball well — we gave them confidence by not closing out with the urgency that we needed to. On our double-teams, which I thought we did a good job of, we gave up two strong side 3s. That can’t happen; that’s the easiest rotation there is and we had two times where we closed out, we were there, but again the hand wasn’t high.
“Three of them in transition, two offensive rebound kick-outs, those are the ones that hurt you when you don’t get back and you go underneath on Cassius [Winston], we don’t have communication on one, the Gabe Brown hit on the left wing. Those are things we look at and talk about and try to eliminate but a lot of times it’s not in the pack-in.”
Hoiberg said they’re going to continue to play the percentages even though that’s stung them at times this season. Illinois is one of the few teams Nebraska is shooting better than from 3 this season. The Illini are 13th at 29.1%. Dosunmu is shooting 30.1%. Felix is at 26.7%. Bezhanishvili will occasionally step out and shoot but he’s only at 30.6% this season. Two other rotation players — Kipper Nichols and Da’Monte Williams — are a combined 10-of-53 (18.9%) from 3.
However, four of Nebraska’s last five opponents have shot better than 38% from deep so the attention to detail and effort on closeouts will have to be much better even against a poor shooting team if the Huskers went to end their skid.
Tipoff at Illinois is set for 7 p.m. CT on BTN with Dave Revise and Stephen Bardo on the call.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.