Illini Welcome Husker Basketball To Big 10

The Fighting Illini basketball team sees fresh faces Saturday as Nebraska visits the Assembly Hall for the first time as a Big 10 conference member. The Cornhuskers have yet to win a league game in three tries, but they have the advantage of being relatively unknown to the Illini. A big, supportive crowd can help the Illini gain their third win of the young season.

Illinois coach Bruce Weber took advantage of an unusually warm winter day Friday, suggesting it is analogous to the topsy-turvy world of Big 10 basketball. Penn State's big win recently and Iowa's two road wins remind that practically all games are tossups this season.

"It's a beautiful day. It's uncharacteristic to have Nebraska coming to the Assembly Hall, and it's 60 degrees outside. We have seen very little snow at best, so really uncharacteristic.

"You watch the Big 10, and there's no predictions you could make that would make any sense. There's so much parity in the league. The weather is unpredictable, and the league is unpredictable."

The Illini are favored to defeat Nebraska in a noon Saturday tilt. But unlike most league games, this one pits two teams that know little about each other. That may add to the excitement of the contest, but it also creates doubt as to the outcome.

"These guys haven't seen them play, maybe a couple times on TV. So it's different. It's almost like a nonconference game the first couple of times we play them, until we get to know them. Even for the coaches.

"We always keep our scout one year to the next. Coach (Jerrance) Howard has had to put a lot of time in because we're basically starting from scratch. You're making a lot of calls and talking to people. What's their strengths, what do they like to do? And then we have a pretty quick turnaround. So it makes it a little more difficult.

"They have the same thing. For them, it's all 11 (other league teams) are different. We only have to worry about one."

Weber isn't totally unfamiliar with the Huskers.

"Doc Sadler comes from the Eddie Sutton coaching tree, so the one thing I know Nebraska will do is guard. They're gonna be physical and play very hard.

"They really live off of their defense. They get steals and get transitions. (Bo) Spencer (senior, 6'-2", 195) is a good part. I don't know his situation. He was at LSU for three years, started and had good numbers. He sat out, now he's there. He's a guy that's been through the wars. When he gets in transition, he's very good. He's kind of a mobile four."

Spencer leads the team with 14.7 points per game. He also grabs 3.4 rebounds and averages nearly four assists a game. With 6'-11" center Jorge Brian Diaz and Dylan Talley out with injuries, senior Toney McCray (6'-6", 215) has taken on more of the scoring load. He gets ten points a game and is hitting over half his shots. He's also one of their leading three point shooters.

Seniors Caleb Walker (6'-4", 205) and Brandon Richardson (6'-0", 190) are likely starters, along with junior Brandon Ubel (6'-10", 235). Walker and Ubel are averaging around 7 points each, while Ubel leads the Huskers with 6 boards a game. Richardson (6'-0", 190) is second on the team in assists and is the steals leader while averaging just under 7 points a contest.

Other Nebraska players who may see playing time include juniors Mike Fox (6'-4", 195) and Christopher Niemann (6'-11", 275) and freshmen David Rivers (6'-7", 174) and Josiah Moore (6'-5", 200). Rivers sees the most time of the group, but the starters receive by far the biggest percentage of action.

Illini guard Brandon Paul has respect for the Huskers.

"They're a good team, they're solid. Obviously, it's gonna be different because we're not used to playing them. They have a mobile four man that can put the ball in the basket and make some threes. Their point guard is pretty good."

Paul will be counted on more heavily than usual Saturday. Lone senior Sam Maniscalco is highly doubtful as he rests his aching ankle. Tracy Abrams and Paul will share point guard duties.

But depth at guard is hurt further by an injury to starting guard D.J. Richardson sustained in the Northwestern game according to Weber.

"D.J. hit his wrist pretty hard, and he hasn't gone in practice. I hope he'll be able to give us a little time. He had already hurt it in practice. He landed on his hand. It's not broken, it's just very sore and stiff. We'll see how tough he is.

"The one thing I told him, maybe he can't score a point with that wrist, but he can still guard and help us. Even if we win 30-29, we'll make national headlines, but who cares?"

Next in line for playing time is a true freshman just rounding into form after an injury.

"I think Myke Henry's gonna play more. He just has a natural instinct; he doesn't hesitate on scoring. He still doesn't know he got backdoored in the (Northwestern) game, so he's still learning about things on both ends of the court. But he's gonna play; we need him. We're down with guards, especially if Sam doesn't go and with D.J. slowed up."

Henry's weakness is defense, but Weber says he is beginning to catch onto some things.

"I think now he actually knows who he's guarding and what we're trying to do. Now, can you anticipate on the court? The game moves so fast. He's not bad on the ball, it's off the ball.

"That is the same for a lot of freshmen. We're yelling names, and they don't even know what the names are. It takes awhile, but slowly but surely that's what film and preparation does. And it's got to be important to you."

Joe Bertrand will likely start at the four again since Nebraska has a smaller starting lineup. But Tyler Griffey and Mike Shaw may get their chances when the Huskers sub. Nnanna Egwu may also get a chance at power forward for the same reason.

"Their four man right now is almost more of a guard. When they sub in a little bit, you might have a chance to do it. We did it (play Leonard and Egwu together) against Minnesota, and it was pretty successful. It maybe eases the pressure on Meyers in the post."

Whoever wants to be a Big 10 coach needs to have his head examined. There are few easy games, and all 12 teams are hungry for victories. Each game simultaneously has both great potential for achievement and great chance of abject failure for those less fortunate. It's got to be a scary prospect, doesn't it?

"It's scary but fun. It's wide open."

Hopefully, the Illini can have fun Saturday and go into the Tuesday Ohio State game with a 3-1 league audit and some momentum.

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