After taking down No. 24 Clemson at Littlejohn Coliseum in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Monday, the Huskers have navigated the first portion of the nonconference schedule while sustaining just one loss, to Texas Tech in the Hall of Fame Classic championship game. Now, a new challenge awaits the 6-1 Cornhuskers this weekend and Nebraska is looking to keep its momentum rolling.
“I think it’s important that you gain confidence from that but we really haven’t achieved a lot either,” Coach Tim Miles said. “I think that’s clear. We’ve talked to our guys about a lot of things here and we’ve had three kind of real light days, so to speak. As I look at them, we’ve had a chance to work on some of the things I thought we’ve struggled with on offense and defense, tried to keep sharp with some things. Now these next two days will be all Illinois prep.”
Sunday will bring the first game of conference play for the Huskers as the 2-5 Illini roll into town off a two-point loss to Notre Dame. The league’s new 20-game conference schedule includes two early Big Ten games in the middle of nonconference play.
“Ready or not, here we come, right?” Miles said. “I like the 20-game schedule. As you expand the league, it’s nice to play your rivals on occasion and so when you only have five double-plays in previous years, now there’s at least more of that and it gives us a great chance to build strength in our schedule.”
Illinois is one of seven teams the Huskers will play twice this season, the others being Minnesota, Maryland, Iowa, Penn State, Michigan State and Purdue. Nebraska played Illinois twice last season as well, splitting the meetings with the Illini winning in Champaign the last time the teams squared off.
“They do a good job,” Miles said about the Illini. “They’re a system team that plays hard. The Notre Dame game reminded me of our game here last year; it was just one of those you’ve got the lead and you think you’re OK and they just keep hanging around. I think that’s a credit to them and their coaches, Coach [Brad] Underwood and his staff, especially Chin Coleman. As you look at things, I really like what they do. They're hard to guard, they’re hard to play against. They haven’t had the results that I’m sure they wish they’ve had but it’s a tough league, too.”
Underwood turned over nearly the entire roster from last year but has a strong backcourt led by sophomore Trent Frazier (15.7 points per game, 391 percent from 3) and freshman Ayo Dosunmu (13.6 points per game, 52 percent from 3) and senior Aaron Jordan (12 points per game, 50 percent from 3). Overall, Illinois is 11th in the country in 3-point percentage at 40.6 with six players shooting north of 39 percent.
“I think just their quickness overall,” Miles said. “They’re a relatively small team, moves well, they make a lot of 3s on offense so they can spread you out that was too but just their overall quickness I think is difficult to deal with.”
Even so, Miles said he believes the Huskers have the necessary versatility to defend a guard-heavy team like the the Illini.
“I like our defense. I believe in our defense,” Miles said. “I think that as you look at where we’re at defensively, I feel we can guard most people we play, even the five-out teams, with our versatility. That’s really necessary, especially this week which we’re going to see a couple five-out teams and then we’re going to see some physicality inside too. We’re going to be tested as much as we want to be this week.”
The Huskers will face two of the better shooting teams in the country in the Illini on Sunday and Creighton next Saturday, and in between they’ll take on Minnesota led by double-double machine Jordan Murphy.
Sunday’s game holds special meaning not just because it’s the beginning of conference play, but also because it will be the 1000th game at the microphone for play-by-play man Kent Pavelka.
“What’s cool about Kent Pavelka, and this is his thousandth game, is A), it just shows how old he is. He’s very old,” Miles joked. “In all serious though, Kent is an awesome guy. He’s done a terrific job. I don’t know what the numbers are, but this is uncommon territory, this does not happen easily. The thing about the guys I’ve worked with and the play-by-play stuff at different universities, these guys become historians of your program, and I think that’s pretty cool. Kent’s a well-deserved historian and this is a neat monumental game so to speak, a neat achievement. As I look forward, I think it’s pretty cool. Hopefully we can come through with a big W for him too.”
Tipoff on Sunday is set for 4 p.m. on BTN.
On Friday, forward Isaac Copeland Jr. was named one of 30 candidates for the Senior CLASS Award. The award, which stands for Celebrating Loyalty and Achievement for Staying in School, is given to one senior each year who epitomizes what it means to be a total student-athlete. It focuses on encouraging students to use their platform in athletics to make a positive impact as leaders in their communities.
Copeland has arguably been Nebraska’s most consistent performer, scoring in double figures in every game but one and leading the team in Box Score Plus/Minus. He’s putting up 15.0 points, 6.0 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game while shooting 56.9 percent from the field. Copland received his degree from Nebraska in May and is working on his master’s.
“I think it’s great that Isaac Copeland’s been nominated as one of the finalists for the Senior CLASS Award,” Miles said. “It’s well deserved. He’s a great guy, a loyal guy who’s been with us and really done a great job in terms of leading our team and improving his game. He’s been just a pleasure to coach and is a well deserved candidate.”
The list of 30 names will be narrowed down to 10 finalists in February and the winner will be selected through a combination of fan, coach and media voting.