Photo Credit: John Peterson

Red-Hot Illini Present Big Challenge For Huskers

January 10, 2022

Nebraska is 0-9 against high-major competition so far this season. Against the likes of North Carolina State, Indiana, Ohio State and Michigan State, the Huskers have competed hard and given themselves chances to win.

However, that wasn’t the case against Michigan, Auburn and Rutgers. The first two carried extenuating circumstances with an illness sweeping through the team that impacted preparation and availability, but the loss to Rutgers on Saturday was a different story.

“I think it’s us,” Derrick Walker said. “It’s nothing that the other team is doing, because you’ve seen we can hang in with the best of them. I think it’s just our mentality and how we come out to play that day. It’s the vibes on our team sometimes, like the Michigan game we just didn’t compete, and you can feel it, you can see it in our faces. So it’s just a matter of us coming out wanting to compete and wanting to be there for our brothers.”

Coach Fred Hoiberg said the Huskers have to find a way to fight through adversity because it’s going to hit every time they step on the floor in Big Ten play.

The Huskers could be getting a boost soon in the form of the return of their on-court leader and top defensive guard as Trey McGowens continues to work towards his return to the lineup from a broken foot. Hoiberg said he just put the elder McGowens through an individual workout before meeting with the media on Monday.

“We’re continuing to add to his workload and he’s responding great,” Hoiberg said. “He has not had any pain. He’s got an X-ray on Wednesday and then we should know a lot more about when we can get him back on the floor, but he’s responded great to what we put in front of him. He’s basically on a two day on, one day off schedule right now and we really like what we see. His explosiveness, actually his numbers are higher right now than they were before the injury. So obviously, that’s a great sign.”

McGowens certainly won’t be back on the court when the Huskers welcome Illinois (11-3, 4-0 Big Ten) to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday. The Illini entered the season ranked inside the top 15 but dropped out after losing two of their first four games, including one while star big man Kofi Cockburn was serving an NCAA suspension. However, they’ve won nine of their last 10 with the only loss coming by four to an Arizona team ranked inside the top 10 on KenPom.

“I think they’re better this year than they were a year ago, and that’s saying something because they were damn good a year ago,” Hoiberg said. “You just the look at their numbers, the way they shoot it, the way they guard. It’s just such a balanced team right now. They’ve got four shooters around Kofi on the floor at all times, and they’re all shooting a very high percentage. When you shoot around 40% around the most dominant big in our league, maybe in the country, it puts you in a very difficult position, especially with us, with getting in foul trouble. We have a very thin line anyway, and then when we get foul trouble we’ve gotten ourselves in a world of hurt so we’ve just got to go out there and fly around and do the best we can as far as getting Kofi to get his touches a little bit further out, which obviously is easier said than done, and then contest those shooters on the floor at all times, and hope they miss.

Cockburn (7-foot, 285 pounds) is fourth in the country in scoring and third in rebounding, averaging 22.5 points on 62% shooting and 12.5 rebounds. Though he only stands at 6-foot-9 and 239 pounds, Walker isn’t going to back down in that match-up.

“He plays basketball, I play basketball,” Walker said. “He might be larger than me, but I’m not really too worried. I’m just as strong. We’re both here to play basketball and win the game so I can’t worry about him so much that I’m not worried about myself. So just come out, do my job, stop him from getting boards and don’t let him dunk on me.”

What makes Cockburn so difficult to stop is that they spread the floor around him with one of the best 3-point shooting teams in the country. The Illini are shooting 38.8% from deep (16th nationally). The biggest of those perimeter threats is Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer who has stepped up in a big way with sophomore point guard Andre Curbelo missing most of the season to this point. The 6-foot-1 guard is averaging 16.4 points while shooting 41.9% from deep in 7.5 attempts per game.

“He’s been phenomenal,” Hoiberg said. “I’m so impressed with that kid, with just his makeup, how hard he plays. He has a very short memory. He misses one, he’s coming down and firing that thing the next time and usually making it. Just a very efficient player right now. That’s all their guys, you can say the same thing and they’ve got experience. They’ve got four super seniors that are starting on this team and it’s a group that’s been together and played together and that’s important to have that type of continuity. As far as Plummer, I love the kid’s toughness and mentality and the kid’s having a hell of a year.”

Stopping Illinois the first time will be difficult enough as the Illini are ninth nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and 17th in effective field goal percentage, but they’re also first in the country in offensive rebounding rate at a ridiculous 41.8%. Taking care of business on the defensive glass has been one of Nebraska’s biggest weaknesses this season and they’ll be tested significantly in that area on Tuesday.

“The guards have to get in there and help,” Hoiberg said. “They’re number one in offensive rebound percentage in the nation and it all centers around Kofi. He’s great at getting his own miss and those guards come in there from the perimeter as well to give them second-chance opportunities. Our guards have got to get in there. Our bigs are going to have their hands full guarding him. Our guards have to come in, go over the top. A lot of long rebounds with the amount of 3s that they shoot. It’s just got to be concerted five-man effort to join the fight and try to get that thing off the glass.”

In addition to Cockburn and Plummer, the Illini have two others averaging double figures in senior wing Jacob Grandison (12.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 50% from 3) and super senior guard Trent Frazier (11.5 points and 2.9 assists per game, 38% from 3). Illinois is also 24th in adjusted defensive efficiency despite only forcing turnovers on 15.7% of their possessions (319th nationally).

A key for Nebraska, both on Tuesday and for the rest of the season, will be getting more out of Alonzo Verge Jr. The senior point guard has averaged just 5.0 points on 21.7% shooing in the three games since the Huskers returned from the holiday break after dropping 16 points and 12 assists in Nebraska’s nonconference finale against Kennesaw State.

“We’ve got to find a way to get Alonzo going again,” Hoiberg said. “He obviously was unbelievable in the last game before the break, and his numbers haven’t been the same in the three games since we’ve been back. We’ve got to find a way to get him going. We’re a better team when he scores the ball, we’re a better team when he gets in the paint, sprays it out and make plays.”

Despite his struggles, Verge’s teammates still have his back and expect him to get back on track.

“I think Alonzo has been through a lot just within these last few games that we’ve played, so I think he’s still trying to find himself,” Walker said. “I think he’s still trying to figure out how to help this team and also him be him. So I’m not too much worried about Alonzo, I know he’s going to figure it out and I know he’s doing everything to just be better for us. So I’m not too worried about that. We need him just as much as he needs us.”

Tipoff on Tuesday is set for 7:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network with Jeff Levering and Brian Butch on the call.

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