Illinois 73, Nebraska 57
Illinois scored just seven points during the first 6:41 of Sunday's road game at Nebraska. During the first month of the season, that usually meant Illinois trailed by more than double digits by the second media timeout.
But on Sunday, Illinois remained tied with the Cornhuskers despite a slow offensive start. The difference? The Illini now defend -- even when they aren't scoring.
The Illini's better-late-than-never defensive epiphany has turned a once-demoralizing season into one that remains relevant as the calendar turns to March.
That defense led to great offense as well. Illinois caught fire from three, sinking 13 of 26 from beyond the arc (including their first five attempts of the second half) -- a season-high mark for the Illini against a Division-I opponent (Illinois made 16 against Division-II McKendree) and the first time Illinois made double-digit threes during Big Ten play this season.
With the win Illinois jumps Nebraska for ninth place in the Big Ten. Illinois has now won three consecutive Big Ten games since Feb. 2015 and notched three consecutive road wins for the first time since 2014.
Tai Webster led Nebraska with 17 points.
Illinois had 17 assists on 25 field goals (on 52 attempts). Illinois scored 21 points off 18 Nebraska turnovers (12 Illini steals).
What it means
Under pressure to save its coach's job, the 2011-12 Illini team lost at a bad Nebraska team by 23 points. Under pressure to save its coach's job, the 2016-17 Illini team stomped on the throat of a bad Nebraska team. John Groce is a fighter. While his coaching certainly deserves a lot of criticism, he's somehow managed to help his team shut out the noise and focus on each game. It's allowed his team to get back onto the NCAA Tournament bubble and set up a monstrous game Wednesday against Michigan State at the State Farm Center. Three weeks ago, Groce's team looked like its head was being held under water. Unlike Bruce Weber's last Illinois team, it's surged to the surface and found a bubble of air. Groce's team must "just keep swimming."
What does Illinois have to do to dance?
"Need to keep winning," said Yahoo! Sports bracketologist Brad Evans, who had Illinois on his "First Four Out" entering Sunday's game. "Strength of schedule is what separates them from rest of the bubble residents. Racking up wins on the road is critical. My best guess is four more and Illinois will dance. Anything less, they likely need help. The Michigan State game is a tipping point."
What went right
Illinois is playing its best defense of the season. Granted, they are playing some teams that are struggling, but the Illini were the worst defensive team in the Big Ten in January. They are more engaged and active on the end. They are pressuring opposing team guards, getting hands passing lanes and contesting in the lane. Te'Jon Lucas' ability to stay in front of good guards is a big reason for the improvement. Illinois held Nebraska to 0.80 points per possession. The Illini have held four out of their last five opponents under 1.00 points per possession. They've won every one of those games. Not a coincidence.
Open threes. Illinois may have just had a great shooting night, but they also got a bunch of great looks thanks to crisp ball movement and good passing out of the post.
Seniors die hard. Hill, Abrams and Morgan look like players who don't want to be remembered for never making an NCAA Tournament.
Hill passed Demetri McCamey and Cory Bradford on the Illinois career scoring list and is now fifth -- just 11 points behind Brian Cook. No matter what happens the rest of the way, Hill should be remembered as one of the program's best players of the last decade.
Morgan took Nebraska freshman Jordy Tshimanga to school. The senior center took advantage of the one-on-one matchups on the block -- there's a reason most teams post-trap Morgan -- and then cashed in on Tshimanga daring him sagging off in the mid-range, seemingly a scouting error by the freshman given Morgan entered the game shooting 68.0 percent on two-point jumpers.
Tracy Abrams is back?! The senior's last Big Ten season had been sad to watch. But seniors die hard -- especially Abrams. He is starting to get his legs under him and his shooting stroke back. He is 9-for-20 from three during the last five games. He shot 3-for-30 from three during his first 11 Big Ten games -- after shooting 29-for-49 from beyond the arc during nonconference play. He had gone 13 straight games without scoring in double digits before Sunday's breakout.
What went wrong
Where was this in January? Better late than never, but the Illini certainly made things difficult on themselves.
Illinois hosts Michigan State for an 8 p.m. Wednesday tipoff. The Illini will honor five seniors for Senior Night: Hill, Morgan, Abrams, Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne. It's almost March, so it's no surprise that Tom Izzo has the Spartans (18-11, 10-6 Big Ten) playing their best basketball. Sparty has won six of its last eight, and its uber-talented freshman class is starting to coalesce and reach its potential. The Spartans (top-50 RPI and KenPom) would be one of the Illini's bigger wins of the season and get them one step closer to an improbable NCAA Tournament bid. And while the Spartans are young and thin, they also are one of the bigger and more athletic teams the Illini will play this season. Under John Groce, Illinois is 2-4 against Michigan State with back-to-back losses.