Coming off a 28 point performance in a 64-57 win over #11 Maryland Wednesday, Malcom Hill leads the Illini into Lincoln to take on Nebraska Sunday night. Elsewhere, Northwestern visits East Lansing to play Michigan State while #4 Wisconsin heads to New Jersey for a matchup against Rutgers. Game by game, here are the breakdowns.
Game of the Day
Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Illinois Fighting Illini - 8:30 ET (BTN)
Illinois (11-5) has proven they can play without leading scorer Rayvonte Rice. In fact, they may have played their best game of the season without him. In their upset win over #11 Maryland on Wednesday, the Illini looked as focused and efficient as they had all year, playing suffocating defense led by senior big man Nnanna Egwu. While the Rice injury might have added some fuel to the fire for these Illini, they will need to continue their solid play in order to keep their hot streak going. A big part of that will be Malcom Hill. When Rice went down, head coach John Groce kept telling his team and the media that there was no one player that could pick up for the star's production. However, Hill may very well be that man. After dropping 28 on Wednesday, the 6'6'' sophomore will try to continue his aggressiveness on both ends of the floor. Hill's numbers this season have skyrocketed since his freshman year, surpassing averages in points, (14.0 to last year's 4.4), rebounds (5.7 to last year's 2.4) as well as shooting 44.1% from three-point range, up 10% from his first season at Illinois. If Hill gets hot and the defense is strong, this team is talented enough to compete with anybody.
On the other hand, Nebraska (9-6) is fighting to stay afloat in a tough Big Ten. While the Huskers were able to handily beat a weak Rutgers team at home last game, there is some tenacity lacking from last year's tournament squad. Early conference losses to Iowa and Indiana demonstrate a forgone sense of togetherness that allowed the Huskers to string together a 10-3 run at the end of last season, including wins over then #9 Wisconsin and then #9 Michigan State. Yet however much Nebraska has underachieved so far, there are two reasons why they still have the opportunity to win any game they have yet to play: Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields. The two stars combine to average 36.5 PPG, accounting for more than half of the team's total offense. This dynamic duo is key to both ends of the floor and has helped the Huskers hang around in closer games.
A noted fact is that Nebraska has yet to play a ranked opponent this season. This is interesting considering last year's team played well against top 25 opponents. Despite not being ranked themselves, they were able to go 3-4 and play some of their best basketball against the most difficult teams. While Illinois is by no means a ranked team, the Illini will be favored in this one. And as proven in the past, when Nebraska is doubted the most is when they perform the best.
Michigan State Spartans vs. Northwestern Wildcats - 12:00 ET (BTN)
Tom Izzo's team hit some rough patches early in the season, but as of late they have seemed to found their stride. The Spartans (11-5) have battled and fallen in three overtime games this year including upset losses to Texas Southern and Notre Dame, however their most recent one came in double overtime at home to #12 Maryland two weeks ago. Since then, they have won at home against Indiana by 20 and at Iowa by 14. Balanced scoring from upperclassmen Denzel Valentine, Travis Trice and Branden Dawson build a strong foundation for this prolific Michigan State offense. These three weapons are one of the main reasons that the Spartans are 4th in the nation in assists per game (18.3), as at least one of the three always seems to be open.
When they host low-scoring Northwestern (10-5) at noon on Sunday, there is little likelihood Izzo let's his guys drop one to an opponent ranked at #142 in KenPom. The Wildcats have neither the talent nor experience to compete with an overall superior team. Following the whole Texas Southern debacle, there's no room for this one to be even close.
Rutgers Scarlet Knights vs. #4 Wisconsin Badgers - 6:00 ET (BTN)
The big storyline of this game is whether or not Frank Kaminsky will play. Kaminsky has recently experienced some concussion related symptoms and is ruled questionable for the contest. Wisconsin's best player was elbowed in the face in Wednesday's game against Purdue and according to a report by the Wisconsin State Journal will "likely" take the precautionary measure to sit this one out in order to get healthy for Nebraska on Thursday. Regardless of his presence, Wisconsin (15-1) is facing up against probably the worst team in the Big Ten in Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights (9-7) were able to squeeze out a conference win in their opener against Penn State, but have struggled on all ends of the floor for the entirety of the season. Wisconsin's Nigel Hayes and Sam Dekker will look to pick up the slack for Kaminsky and roll to an easy one on the road.