PREVIEW: Illinois at Nebraska

Lead basketball reporter Derek Piper breaks down Illinois' road matchup with Nebraska on Sunday.

Illinois (16-12, 6-9) at

Nebraska (12-15, 6-9)

Date & Time: Feb. 26, 6:30 p.m. CT

Location: Pinnacle Bank Arena (Lincoln, Neb.)

TV: BTN

Quick Hits

  • Illinois has won back-to-back Big Ten games for the first time since 2015.
  • The Illini have not won three straight Big Ten road games since trips to Minnesota, Michigan State and Iowa in 2014.
  • In Illinois' past two wins, they've held their opponent to an average of 58 points per game and 35.5 percent shooting.
  • With the win on Tuesday, the Illini surpassed last season's win total overall and in the Big Ten.
  • Illinois is 12-6 all-time against Nebraska, but the Huskers won last season's meeting in Champaign 78-67.
  • Nebraska has won both matchups in Lincoln since Pinnacle Bank Arena opened in Aug. 2013.
  • The Huskers are coming off an 88-72 loss at Michigan State on Thursday.
  • Nebraska is 3-4 at home in Big Ten play this season, and they are 20-15 in Big Ten play in four seasons at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
  • The Huskers will wear throwback jerseys on Sunday and have program alums in attendance as part of Legends Weekend.

Projected Starters

Te'Jon Lucas (FR): Lucas posted nine points, three assists and two steals on Tuesday against Northwestern. The freshman point guard is averaging 9.2 points and 4.4 assists per game in February. He is an impact player at both ends of the floor, and his margin above replacement is exceptionally large.

Tracy Abrams (GR): Abrams has started the last two games, and he finished with eight points, five rebounds and an assist in 30 minutes on Tuesday. That was the most points and minutes Abrams has totaled since the Big Ten home opener against Ohio State. He has played with more confidence of late.

Malcolm Hill (SR): Hill continues to put up numbers, as he climbs the all-time scoring list. He tied Demetri McCamey for sixth in program history on Tuesday with 18 points. He also added five rebounds and five assists in 37 minutes. Hill is 18 points away from passing Cory Bradford (fifth) and 31 away from passing Brian Cook (fourth).

Leron Black (R-SO): Black sparked the Illinois offense with nine points in the first half against Northwestern. He finished the game with 11 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes. That was his first double-digit scoring outing since Jan. 25, and his fourth of the Big Ten season.

Maverick Morgan (SR): Morgan produced nine points, 10 rebounds, two steals and a block in 35 minutes on Tuesday. The senior big man has been one of most consistent players on the team this season, and the Illini will need him to continue to be that to make a run down the stretch.

Bench

Michael Finke (R-SO): Finke had five points and seven boards against Northwestern, as he hit a three for the fourth straight game. He leads the Big Ten by shooting 50 percent from deep in conference play. Finke has played nearly 25 minutes per game during Illinois' recent 3-1 stint.

Kipper Nichols (R-FR): Hill said on Saturday that Nichols has made as much defensive progress as anyone in recent weeks. Nichols had three swats and a steal on Tuesday to go along with six points and three boards. He brings a good helping of value with his energy and athleticism off the bench.

Jalen Coleman-Lands (SO): Coleman-Lands played just two minutes in the first half against Northwestern before spraining his ankle chasing a loose ball. Groce said on Saturday that Coleman-Lands has looked good in practice the last few days, and the expectation is that he will play on Sunday.

Aaron Jordan (SO): Jordan played nine minutes in Coleman-Lands' absence on Tuesday, which was the most action he has received since playing 10 minutes at Michigan last month. He has played just 6.1 minutes per game in Big Ten play, and has gone 1-of-8 from the field in conference.

Jaylon Tate (SR): Tate did not play against Northwestern after playing seven minutes at Iowa in the previous game. He did not play well against the Hawkeyes, as he only managed to post two turnovers and two fouls. Tate has sat three of the last four games.

Mike Thorne Jr. (GR): Thorne has not played in each of the last four games. His last appearance was on Feb. 4 against Minnesota. He finished with five points, three fouls and two turnovers in 10 minutes in that game.

D.J. Williams (SO): Williams has sat out eight straight games, and he hasn't played at all in 11 of the last 12. He played three minutes at Michigan on Jan. 21 and had a turnover. The former top-50 recruit has not played since.

Nebraska Starters

Glynn Watson (SO): Deemed "the one that got away" by many Illini fans, Watson is averaging 14.7 points and 2.6 assists per game in Big Ten play as a sophomore. He has an ability to get his own shot, and he's shooting 45.6 percent from deep in conference. Watson is a plus defender as well -- ranking third in the Big Ten with 24 steals in conference games.

Tai Webster (SR): Webster has played more minutes than anyone since Big Ten play began at 36.2 minutes per game. He also ranks third with 18.4 points per game in conference, and he's scored in double figures in every game this season. Webster is constantly in attack mode, and he has a knack for getting to the free-throw line.

Evan Taylor (JR): Taylor has started all 15 Big Ten games for the Huskers after started just two contests in the nonconference. He is averaging 6.1 points and 4.1 rebounds in 30.9 minutes per game in conference play. Taylor was a late JUCO addition for Nebraska this offseason, and he provides energy and defense in the backcourt.

Michael Jacobson (SO): The 6-foot-9 big man is averaging 6.5 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in Big Ten play. Jacobson ranks third in the conference in offensive rebounding percentage with 56 offensive boards in 15 conference games. He had seven offensive rebounds in wins against Maryland and Iowa earlier this season.

Jordy Tshimanga (FR): Tshimanga has emerged as a big, physical presence for the Huskers in the post. At 6-foot-11, 275 pounds, he is capable of banging in the paint, finishing around the basket and rebounding. He had eight points and seven rebounds at Michigan State on Thursday. Tshimanga's issues have been with foul trouble and turnovers.

Three Things I'm Looking For

1. How tough are you? Nebraska likes to play a tough, physical brand of basketball. Illinois found that out the hard way last season, as the Huskers came into Champaign and beat them up. They "punked us", Finke said on Saturday. Nebraska killed the Illini on the boards in that game with a +18 rebounding margin. Illinois will have to battle on the glass in this matchup. Jacobson is a talented rebounder, and Tshimanga and Ed Morrow get after it as well with their physicality. Morrow had 10 rebounds and five blocks in the Big Ten opener against Indiana, but he hasn't quite returned to that form since coming back from a foot injury. He is still a factor, though. And Nebraska's guards will really pressure the ball. The Huskers rank second in the conference in steals in Big Ten play. How will the Illini respond against that in a hostile environment with no margin for error in the final three regular season games?

2. Cut the head of the snake. It's no secret where the Huskers get their bite on offense. Watson and Webster average more than 33 points per game combined in Big Ten play. That accounts for more than 45 percent of Nebraska's offense production. The Illini cannot afford for them to get rolling, especially Watson -- who has been an X-factor for the Huskers. They are 4-2 in Big Ten play when he scores 15 points or more, and 2-7 when he doesn't. Watson had 17 points in the win against Illinois last year. But the Illini didn't have Lucas back then, and he has really helped to change things for this team at that end of the floor. Illinois held Northwestern to a season-low 50 points on Tuesday, and Lucas was a big part of limiting Bryant McIntosh to just 16 points on 17 shots. Lucas said on Saturday that the plan is to make Watson and Webster be volume scorers as well.

3. Be repeatable. Illinois finally showed the consistency to be able to win back-to-back Big Ten regular season games. Consistency is the name of the game this time of year, especially when you're trying to climb out of a hole into daylight. One slip-up and it's all for not when it comes to a hopeful NCAA tournament push for the Illini. The players have said they're still not thinking about the big picture, but regardless, they have to be fully aware of the situation. The Illini defense has really shaped up of late -- outside of the loss at home to Penn State. Putting it together at that end enables you to be more consistent with your outputs. Illinois will have to start with that on Sunday, and also make some shots. Consistent is one of the last descriptive words you'd associate with the wild and unpredictable Big Ten, but the Illini need to be just that.

Prediction

Odds and recent history say that Illinois won't close the regular season with five straight wins. The Illini haven't won five straight Big Ten games since Groce's first season. But each of the final three are winnable, and that includes this road trip. Vegas has Nebraska as a four-point favorite to win this game. They won their last home game against Penn State, and took Wisconsin to overtime before that.

The Illini will enter this game with confidence and positive momentum, though. They will be challenged to keep Nebraska's backcourt under wraps, and the frontcourt needs to step up on the glass. However, there are areas for Illinois to exploit. Nebraska is 343rd of 351 D-1 teams in three-point percentage defense. The Illini should take advantage, but they will win this game by getting enough stops.

Illinois 67, Nebraska 63


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