UI 60, Nebraska 49: Notebook
CHAMPAIGN — Wednesday got off to a sour but not surprising start when Illinois recruiting target Charles Matthews announced his oral commitment to Kentucky. The five-star combo guard from Chicago’s St. Rita is rated as the 14th-best player in the country in the 2015 class by Scout.com.
Matthews earlier in the week announced a top five that also included the Illini, Kansas, Marquette and Michigan State.
The 6-foot-6 guard is close friends with Illinois 2015 commit D.J. Williams of Simeon but said he made the decision that was best for him and his family.
Williams attended Matthews’ news conference Wednesday morning at St. Rita on the South Side. Matthews said it was tough passing on the Illini.
“A little bit,” he said. “(Williams) and I talked a lot about that.”
Illinois would have welcomed a talent like Matthews, but with Williams in the fold along with 2015 commit Aaron Jordan from Plainfield East, another wing player wasn’t a necessity. And with freshmen Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill developing, the Illini appear to be set at that spot.
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Entering the season, few Big Ten fans outside of Nebraska knew who Terran Petteway was. With two weeks remaining until the Big Ten tournament, Petteway is a legitimate candidate for Big Ten Player of the Year.
The transfer from Texas Tech entered the week leading the conference in scoring at 18.4 points per game and has been a key cog in Nebraska’s surge to the NCAA tournament bubble.
“I think he’s playing at as high a level as anyone in our league right now. He gives them a swagger and confidence. A little bit like Ray Rice he made the absolutely most of his sit-out year,” Illinois coach John Groce said. “He gained 25 pounds. He plays with a lot of confidence, he makes big-time shots for them. He’s gifted offensively because he can score at all three levels of the court, whether that’s mid-range, long range, finish game. I think he competes, I love his competitive toughness. He’s certainly made his mark. I think he’s a big part of what they do and certainly one of the better players in our league.”
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Expectations weren’t high for the Cornhuskers entering the season. After finishing 10th in the Big Ten last year, Nebraska was expected to finish somewhere in the bottom third of the league in Tim Miles’ second season. But with a week and a half left in the season, the Cornhuskers are on the brink of reaching their first NCAA tournament since 1998. The program is squarely on the NCAA bubble.
“They need to go a minimum of 2-2 here down the stretch. The schedule is clearly in place where they can do that, I think,” ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi said Wednesday. “They should beat Northwestern at home. If they can split with Illinois and Indiana, that gets them to 10-8 minimally, not counting the game against Wisconsin, counting that as a loss.”
The Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis will also be big for the Huskers.
“Depending on who they draw, 10-8 plus one more I think would almost certainly do it for Nebraska, given how the rest of the bubble looks at this point.”
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Former Illini Brandon Paul on Wednesday signed to play with the Canton Charge of the NBA Development League. The Charge is an affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Paul began his professional career this season in Russia but left earlier this month to resume his career in the States. He was averaging 5.9 points playing in 22 of his team’s 28 games.
Paul mother, Lynda, said Wednesday that the 6-4 guard was picked up immediately by Canton once he became available from the pool of candidates in the NBA D-League pool. There was a lot of interest in his services.
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A hot topic in the sports world in recent weeks has been talk about the inclusion of gay athletes. Former Missouri linebacker Michael Sam is attempting to become the first openly gay athlete to play in the NFL.
NBA veteran Jason Collins came out as gay last year, and he made his season debut earlier this week for the Brooklyn Nets, becoming the first openly gay player to play an NBA game.
Groce said the subject hasn’t come up with his team or staff, but perhaps it’s something they might tackle in the future.
“We haven’t (talked about it). Maybe we should,” the Illinois coach said. “I always like to share things with the guys, articles about all athletes; life stuff. Some of them are good articles I’ll give them. A guy makes a good decision, this is a story that’s impacted his community or the world or his university. We share that with them. Sometimes it’s bad choices in certain areas and I share that with them and we talk about that.”
Groce and his staff have an open-door policy with the players, and they embrace any opportunity they get to talk about basketball.
“We always say to our players the greatest gift God gave us was the gift to choose, so choose wisely. We want to teach them the best we can. We’re not with them 24/7 but we want to teach them life skills as well,” Groce said. “We usually tackle whatever different issues that are going around in the sports world pretty much head on. I think the guys enjoy that we talk about things that affect them as people, not just players.
“It hasn’t come up. We’re not an organization that dodges issues. We like to talk about those things, get guys’ input. Maybe it’s something we should have a discussion about. It has not been something that’s come up.