HQ men's hoops prediction: UI 67, Nebraska 65
Illinois at Nebraska, 8 p.m. Wednesday
Illinois (14-10, 3-8 Big Ten)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2 11.5
G Kendrick Nunn Fr. 6-3 4.8
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4 16.5
G/F Malcolm Hill Fr. 6-6 3.6
C Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11 6.9
FYI: Nunn’s 19 points Sunday at Penn State were the most for an Illinois freshman since Abrams went for 22 against Purdue on Feb. 22, 2012.
OFF THE BENCH
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6 10.6
F Jon Ekey Sr. 6-7 7.9
G Jaylon Tate Fr. 6-3 2.3
Nebraska (12-10, 4-6 Big Ten)
Pos. Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tai Webster Fr. 6-4 5.1
G Ray Gallegos Sr. 6-2 7.8
G Terran Petteway So. 6-6 17.5
F Shavon Shields So. 6-7 11.0
F Walter Pitchford So. 6-10 8.7
FYI: Petteway, a transfer from Texas Tech, eclipsed the 30-point plateau against UMass and Minnesota and is the only Big Ten player to score 30-plus points twice this season.
OFF THE BENCH
G Benny Parker So. 5-9 2.0
G David Rivers Jr. 6-7 2.0
F Leslee Smith Jr. 6-8 6.7
Site: Pinnacle Bank Arena (15,147), Lincoln, Neb.
TV: BTN — Cory Provus (play-by-play) and Shon Morris (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Illinois leads 10-3. Last meeting: Illinois 72, Nebraska 65, March 2, 2013 (Champaign).
FYI: The Illini are trying to string together road wins in back-to-back games for the first time since defeating Northwestern and Indiana in consecutive games away from home in February 2009.
Marcus Jackson’s storylines
1. Illinois veterans Tracy Abrams, Joseph Bertrand and Nnanna Egwu know Nebraska can be a tough place to play. They were on the floor two years ago when the Cornhuskers delivered an 80-57 beatdown that left some Illini in tears. It was tough then and it’s tougher now in brand-new Pinnacle Bank Arena, where the Huskers have lost once — a one-point setback to Michigan. “I’ve only seen it on TV and only on video, but it looks like a heck of an environment,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “We’re gonna have our hands full with that. Our guys will look forward to that opportunity as well, having the chance to play them.” Nebraska is decidedly much better playing in front of the home folks, averaging 71.2 points per game at home while getting just 63.1 away from Lincoln — where the record is 2-9.
2. Illinois fans have had the luxury of watching Rayvonte Rice emerge as the go-to guy and vault himself into one of the conference’s top scorers in his first season after sitting out last season as a transfer. Nebraska folks are enjoying a similar experience with their own transfer, Terran Petteway. The Texas Tech transfer is fifth in the league in scoring at 17.5 points per game, and Groce sees a lot of similarities in Petteway’s game compared with Rice’s. That means Illinois defenders will have their hands full with him Wednesday night. “He is a terrific talent, scores it really in all three levels of the court. I love his toughness. I love his swagger and confidence. Looks like he’d be a fun guy to coach,” Groce said. “He has some tendencies and reminds me a little bit of Ray. He’s a tough cover because of his versatility and his ability to score from all levels.”
3. In the media, the fandom and just outside the program in general, some have looked at Bertrand and Jon Ekey being removed from the starting lineup as a demotion for the fifth-year seniors. Groce doesn’t much care for that label to be placed upon the duo, which he continues to praise despite replacing them in the starting five with a pair of freshmen. If anything, it adds a dimension off the bench Illinois hasn’t had all season. Entering Wednesday night’s game, the Illini have had just two players (Hill, Tate) come off the bench to score in double figures. That likely will change soon with Bertrand and Ekey playing as reserves. “Asking Joe to come off the bench, he’s done it before, but he’s a double-figure scorer who’s shooting 50-something percent from the field,” Groce said. “You ask Jon to come off the bench, he’s your best three-point shooter, your leading Matto point player and your leading offensive rebounder per minute played. Those guys are pretty good players.”
Illinois 67, Nebraska 65
For the first time in more than a month, Illinois practiced this week on the heels of a win. Over at the Ubben Basketball Complex, nothing about what the players were saying or the way they behaved indicated anything was different than when they were in the midst of an eight-game losing streak. They approached their preparation for the Nebraska game the same as they had the previous 24 games, and the coaches treated them the same as they do after wins or losses. “It’s always good, obviously, to get a win after you go through the month that we did,” Ekey said. “It’s the same thing. We came in, we watched the film, we learned from it. Coach is really great after losses or wins. He doesn’t change; none of us change. That’s what he wants us to be like.” The plane ride from Happy Valley was a happy one, though, and Illinois is hoping for another happy flight after Wednesday night’s tilt in Lincoln. “It’s been a long time since we got one. We’ve got to definitely build off that and keep going,” Abrams said. (N-G prediction record: 20-4)