On Jan. 15, Nebraska survived what might have been a death blow to to its NCAA Tournament hopes as a miracle shot at the buzzer by James Palmer Jr. lifted Nebraska past lowly Illinois 64-63.
Since that night, Nebraska has dropped just one game, a five-point decision at then-No. 13 Ohio State, and Palmer has put together a strong argument for being named an All-Big Ten First Teamer.
Nebraska will get another chance on Sunday to show just how much it has improved with a rematch with the Illini, now a league-worst 2-12 and 12-15 overall, in Champaign.
“You kind of felt like we had the game right where we wanted it and then we just collapsed,” Coach Tim Miles said about the first meeting in Lincoln. “They made some good plays and then we got lucky. James hit a runner so to speak at the buzzer and we win the ball game. There’s no way we should have ended up down two. But at the same time, those are the plays and those are the types of things that will turn a season and make it special.”
Despite the Illini’s record, they have given plenty of teams a run for their money, and Miles said they provide a unique look on both ends within the Big Ten under new coach Brad Underwood.
“They’re like two separate scouts,” Miles said. “They’ve got kind of a separate defense that’s a little bit unique, and their offense is a unique scout too for us because we don’t see the spread in the league besides them. The extra days will help prep for them but we just didn’t play very well last time. Certainly they had something to do with that but we’ve been playing better recently so I would expect a better performance and we’re going to need one on the road.”
Illinois has suffered some heart-breaking losses this season, but that hasn’t changed the Illini’s approach or effort level. The Illini lead the Big Ten in steals and are third in offensive rebounds.
“They play really hard on both ends,” junior forward Isaac Copeland said. “On offense, they move with a lot of pace and on defense, they just harass you the whole time. They also crash the offensive glass really well. They win the hustle game a lot of the time, so you’ve got to be ready to play hard.”
Senior forward Michael Finke gave Nebraska all kinds of problems with 16 points and 10 rebounds in the first game but he has missed the last two for Illinois with a concussion and his status is up in the air.
“He gives them some versatility and you just never know,” Miles said. “If he’s practicing with them, I’m sure he’ll go. If not, we’ll just prepare for whoever they throw out there.”
With or without Finke, Nebraska’s first priority will be slowing down 6-foot-7 forward Leron Black. The junior is leading the Illini with 14.6 points and 5.5 rebounds per game while shooting 56.3 percent from the field, 50 percent from 3 and 78.8 percent from the free-throw line.
“Everybody needs to make everything tough for him,” Copeland said. “He can shoot a lot of fadeaways, he crashes the offensive glass pretty hard. We just have to make him work for everything.”
Illinois’ second-leading scorer is freshman Trent Frazier who is averaging 12.3 points, 2.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game. The 6-foot-1 guard led the Illini with 19 points and five assists in their first game against Nebraska.
As a team, Illinois is third in the conference in converting shots inside the arc at 52.1 percent.
On Thursday, Penn State knocked off Ohio State by 23 while Wisconsin handed Purdue a four-point loss. Copeland said the Huskers have to be ready no matter who their opponent is.
“Anybody can lose in the Big Ten, and we don’t want to be one of those teams,” Copeland said. “We have to come out, play hard, play loose and get these wins.”
Tipoff on Sunday is set for 2:30 p.m. on BTN with Cory Provus and Robbie Hummel 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.