On Sunday night, the Illinois Fighting Illini traveled to Lincoln to play the Nebraska Cornhuskers as both teams tried to separate themselves from the bottom of the Big Ten.
Each team entered the game at 6-9 in the conference. The loser would drop into a four-team traffic jam at 6-10 with a week to go in conference play. The bottom four teams in the Big Ten have to play starting on Wednesday in the tournament, making a run to the weekend very difficult.
The game was tight in the first half with the Illini taking a slim 30-28 lead to the locker room. Maverick Morgan provided good energy for Illinois with 10 points. Nebraska was paced by Tai Webster with 10 points and six rebounds.
The second half was dominated by the Illini. Illinois used sloppy play from the Cornhuskers, three-pointers and a big half from Malcolm Hill. The Illini outscored Nebraska 43-29 in the second 20 minutes and won the game 73-57. The Illini (17-12, 7-9) now positions themselves comfortably in the Thursday set of games, while Nebraska (12-16, 6-10) takes a step back with two tough games remaining.
Let’s now check out what we learned from tonight’s game.
What We Learned
1. Illinois Has Turned It Around With Defense.
Tonight’s victory for Illinois was their third-in-a-row. It is Illinois’ first three-game winning streak in two years. Defense has led the charge in the turnaround.
Over the three-game win streak, Illinois has given up an average of 57.6 points per game. The Fighting Illini’s points allowed season average is 70.4.
Tonight, Illinois was active on the defensive end and frustrated Nebraska all evening long. The Cornhuskers shot only 37.5% from the field, 26.7% from three, committed 18 turnovers and only had one player in double figures (Tai Webster).
Should the Illini continue to defend well, look out, it is a team that could surprise some people.
2. Yes, Illinois Can Still Make the NCAA Tournament.
As unexpected as this sounds, it is a possibility.
The Illini now sit at 7-9 in the conference, with a home game against Michigan State and a road trip to Rutgers to complete conference play. A 19-12 and 9-9 mark is certainly possible.
Illinois’ RPI is currently 56. Two additional victories will probably put them into the top 50. Looking around the country to comparable teams, Lunardi and Palm both have squads such as TCU and Georgia in the field right now. Illinois’ resume is comparable and arguably better than both teams.
The bubble is weak this year and that aids Illinois’ chances. A solid next two weeks could be the final push to an improbable NCAA Tournament birth bid. There is much work to do and it is still improbably, but is certainly in play after tonight’s victory.
3. Tai Webster Can’t Do It All.
Not a good look for Nebraska tonight.
The Cornhuskers were blown out at home by a team with an identical conference record and now find themselves sitting at just 7-11 in Big Ten play.
One player still brought it for Nebraska, Tai Webster. The senior guard scored 17 points and grabbed eight rebounds. Unfortunately, no one else for Nebraska scored more than nine points.
The only way Nebraska has won this season has been with multiple players in double figures. Tonight, Nebraska looked spiritless and disinterested.
With a tough week upcoming, Nebraska is now staring 6-12 and a 13th place finish in the face. To win, Webster needs some offensive help from other pieces on the Cornhuskers.
Illinois looks to extend their win streak to four by hosting Michigan State on Wednesday. Nebraska travels to red-hot Minnesota on Thursday.