Nebraska will be back at Pinnacle Bank Arena for its first home game of 2023 on Tuesday as Brad Underwood’s Fighting Illini swing through Lincoln.
Both teams bounced back from losses to secure victories on Saturday, and both teams are 4-4 in their last eight as neither squad has managed to create sustained success so far this season. Nebraska’s win was an overtime victory at Minnesota while Illinois knocked off a top-15 Wisconsin team in Champaign.
“The important thing when you have a big emotional win like that is putting it behind you and our guys, as they’ve done all year, have had a good approach, they’ve shown resiliency after losses and the ability to put a win behind them,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “So it’s about going out and playing 40 minutes against a really physical team that’s coming off one of their best performances of the season. I was really impressed with what they did against a really good Wisconsin team in their game on Saturday, I believe it was.
“It’s important now to come back and protect home court in this league. You have to do it if you have any chance of having success, and our guys will be ready, but I know Illinois will as well. They’re one of the more physical teams, they’re fast, they create steals and we have to do a good job taking care of the basketball and keeping them out of transition.”
Nebraska’s last home game was the victory over Iowa on Dec. 29. The Huakwea split their last two games on the road, falling at Michigan State before winning at Minnesota, and senior Emmanuel Bandoumel said the team is looking forward to playing in front of Nebraska fans again.
“It’s always cool to be home, it’s always cool to be playing in front of our fans,” Bandoumel said. “They bring us the energy that we need, they bring us a swagger that we need. They are involved for the whole 40 minutes. Being at home, it’s really the whole crowd with us for 40. We love to play in front of our fans, we love the energy that they bring us and it’s like a sixth man on the court. The other teams feel it, we feel it and it brings us the juice. It’s just hug for us to protect the home court and give the fans what they need, what they want.”
For Illinois, it all starts with Texas Tech transfer Terrence Shannon Jr., a 6-foot-6, 225-pound wing who is averaging 17.6 points, 5.5rebounds and 3.2 assists while shooting 46.2% from the field including 34.6% from 3 and 76.8% from the foul line on 6.6 attempts per game. Bandoumel will likely draw that assignment for most of the night.
“He’s a really good two-way guy, probably one of the best that we’ve played so far,” Bandoumel said. “He can put it on the deck, get to the rim, crafty, can shoot the ball and he produces a lot of steals on defense … To be playing against a guy that that for me, it’s really cool because I want to play against the best of the best and to go up against him, I want to see where I stand as far as what level I’m on defensively if I can shut him down and stop him. But he’s just a great, great player.”
Shannon leads the way, but four other Illini averaged right around 10 points per game including a pair of Baylor transfers in Pain Dainja and Matthew Mayer. Dainja is a 6-foot-9, 270-pound center averaging 10.1 points on 71.4% shooting, 5.7 rebounds and 1.4 assists in just 18.5 minutes per game. Hoiberg praised his toughness, physicality, touch around the rim and passing ability. Mayer is a 6-foot-9, 225-pound wing who averages 10.1 points while shooting 36.6% from 3 on nearly five attempts per game.
Perhaps the mist intriguing player on the roster is Coleman Hawkins, a return from last season who is averaging 10.0 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.2 blocks as a versatile 6-foot-10, 225-pound forward.
“He’s coming off a great performance, making six 3s against Wisconsin, and he’ll play both frontline positions,” Hoiberg said of Hawkins. “He poses a heck of a problem. The one thing is that we’re coming off a game where we had to prepare the same way for Dawson Garcia when he played the five with his ability to pop … Hawkins is popping most of the times and if he’s got space, he’s going to make it. So again, different coverages when you play against guys like that, and you always have a secondary coverage you have to be ready and go out and make an adjustment. The kid’s playing with a lot of confidence right now after his last game and hopefully we can have good, spirited contests and force him to rush those shots a little bit. But the kid’s a heck of a player.”
After a 6-1 start to the season, Illinois has followed every win with a loss and sits at 10-5 including 1-3 in Big Ten play. Despite their recent struggles, the Illinis are 32nd in KenPom — 52nd in adjusted offensive efficiency and 36th in adjusted defensive efficiency. Illinois plays fast (58th in adjusted tempo) and it’s disruptive defensively (51st in opponent turnover rate, 13th in block rate), but its also loose with the ball as the Illini turn it over nearly as much as their opponents do (306th in the country in turnover rate).
“I’m really impressed with their freshman guard [Sencire Harris] picking up full court,” Hoiberg said. “He’s one of the top steal guys in the country per minute played and Shannon playing the passing lanes, they’re just really good. They war you through screens, they’re going to blow up handoffs. Just again, you have to be tough. You think a lot of times toughness is only the defensive end; for a game like this, you have to have toughness on the offensive end. If you turn the ball over against this team, they’re going to make you pay and if you have live ball turnovers, they turn into layups and dunks. They’re very athletic, so it’s just a huge point of emphasis, taking care of the basketball tomorrow night.”
Illinois is elite inside the arc on both ends, shooting 56.6% on 2-pointers (18th nationally) while holding its opponents to 42.6% (11th). The Illini are hitting from 3 at the national average rate of 33.6%, but they’re second in the Big Ten and 25th nationally in 3-point attempt rate as five players attempt at least 3.5 3s per game. Nebraska will have to be locked in to the game plan on both ends of the floor to prevent the Illini from pulling away.
“Brad’s teams are always one of the most physical teams that you’re going to play against … But they do a such a good job of dropping into paint, chasing all the screens, getting into your body,” Hoiberg said. “We can’t let them dictate where we’re going; we have to be tough and physical not only defensively, but offensively or else they’re just going to push us all over the place.”
For fans planning to attend the game (or future home games), athletic director Trev Alberts announced on Monday the the university was working with their partners at Pinnacle Bank Arena, the West Haymarket Joint Public Agency, and the City of Lincoln to improve the concessions experience at men’s and women’s basketball games at the Vault. Changes will begin taking effect during the game against the Illini, and Alberts expects to see gradual improvement.
Tipoff on Tuesday is set for 8 p.m. CT on Bg Ten Network with Kevin Kugler and Shon Morris 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.