The Illinois basketball team is back in the land of Lincoln......Lincoln, Nebraska that is.
They are also back at the scene of one of the worst losses in recent memory for an Illini basketball team.
As we all know now....Illinois basketball was in the middle of a huge tailspin at the end of last season. When they came to the Devaney Center in Lincoln last year....the Illini had lost 4 straight Big Ten games....and 7 of their previous 8 games in the conference overall. It was mid-to-late February and Illinois was desperately hoping to start to string together a couple of wins that somehow...someway..... might give them any kind of momentum going into March. After a 15-3 start to the season....the Illini were starting to see their fading NCAA chances go down the drain. Pressure was mounting day by day on Bruce Weber and his staff and team to get it turned around.
As they entered the Devaney Center on Feb 18th of last year.....the Illini were hopeful that a struggling Nebraska team might be just the right tonic for an ailing (mentally) ball club. And the way the game started....it appeared that might be the case. Illinois jumped out to a quick lead at 16-7....and still led 24-16 with 8:00 minutes left in the first half. Then Nebraska rattled off 14 unanswered points and finished the first half on a 17-2 run. Still it was only a 7 point Husker lead at halftime.
That Husker momentum continued at the start of the 2nd half.....as Nebrska shot a sizzling 57 percent from the field while Illinois was shooting the ball at a 31 percent clip....and going only 2-12 from 3-point territory. But the breathtaking (and backbreaking) part of the run for Nebraska was the fact that the Huskers didnt stop scoring until they had gone on a remarkable 36-4 scoring binge. Illinois wound up losing the game by an 80-57 final....and the second half wasnt that close. Bo Spencer had a huge day for the Huskers....scoring 27 points....while Nebraska as a team made 10-3 pointers.
By the time the game was winding down....the Illini looked like a demoralized group of young men.....and a lasting image from near the end of that game was a sobbing Meyers Leonard sitting on the Illini bench as the clock wound down.
I remember walking out of the Devaney Center that afternoon feeling like I had just been run over by a bus. What hopes there were for at least a late-season flicker of momentum with a win against the Big Ten's newest member went up in smoke that afternoon on the flatlands of the Nebraska countryside.
Since then a lot has happened. There is a new coach for the Illini and a memorable start to John Groce's first season. A Top 10 ranking after an exciting 12-0 start.
But since the start of Big Ten play...... the Illini defense (especially against the 3-point shot) has slipped to the bottom of the conference. The shooting woes that began in the Purdue game in West Lafayette to open league play have not been turned around yet.
So again the Illini arrive in Lincoln, Nebraska at an important point in the season (a month earlier than last season) with a chance to stem some negative vibes that have cropped up recently. Blowout losses to Northwestern and Wisconsin (games where the Illini never led ) have alarmed Illini fans that I talk to around town. . A Nebraska opponent that is 1-5 in league play seems like a good opponent to try and get some momentum back against......while there is still time to do so.
We will see how this year's Illini team members respond as they remember...but also try to forget .....what happened to them during their last trip to the western edge of the Big Ten Conference.
Talk to you Tuesday night from Husker country.