College/Prep Sports Reporter

Scott Richey is a reporter covering college basketball at The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

Illinois vs. Nebraska, 1.11

LINCOLN, NEB. - 01/11/2022 - Illinois' Kofi Cockburn (left) attempts to shoot over Nebraska's Derrick Walker during the first half basketball action, Tuesday, Jan. 11, 2022, at Pinnacle Bank Arena. JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star

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Follow along all night with beat writer Scott Richey live from Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb., as No. 25 Illinois faces Nebraska in Big Ten action:

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A quick glance at Ken Pomeroy's ratings is all it takes to see that Illinois has one of the most efficient offenses in the country. And that it could be even better. The Illini enter tonight's game at Nebraska ranked ninth in KenPom in adjusted offensive efficiency. They also rank 294th in turnover percentage — as in they give the ball away on 20.9 percent of their possessions.

That's ... not ideal. 

Turnovers were down, however, in last week's win against Maryland. Illinois turned it over a season-low seven times. It was just the second time in 14 games, though, the Illini committed single-digit turnovers. 

"We’d have one of the top five or six offensive efficiencies in the country if we didn't turn it over," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "We're starting to become more ball tough. Part of that becomes being comfortable understanding where opportunities are in what we’re doing offensively in our schemes. I think we’re starting to become a little tougher and more assertive with the ball."

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Illinois has the opportunity for a "road kill" tonight in Lincoln, Neb. As in a coveted Big Ten road win against Nebraska. They're important. Winning the Big Ten regular season title only happens if you're as good on the road as you are at home (or close to it). 

Former Illini guard turned ESPN analyst Sean Harrington keeps a Big Ten plus/minus all season long. Teams get one point for a road win, zero points for a road loss or home win and minus-one point for a home loss. The more points you accumulate the more likely winning a Big Ten title becomes.

To the video!

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Here's some of what Brad Underwood had to say yesterday ahead of tonight's game at Nebraska (plus this expected pregame note):

On last week's win against Maryland

"Game No. 5 of 20 at Nebraska. It’s coming off a hard-fought win against Maryland, which they are all at this point. I was really pleased with the job Da’Monte (Williams) and Trent (Frazier) did defensively in the second half of that game. I thought Kofi (Cockburn) was impactful as heck as well.

"The way that those guys had to play in terms of the minutes was something that was unexpected. I didn’t plan on that. It was a challenge because it was coming off a quick turn — one-day prep — after 10 days off with COVID. Really proud of the guys for that. I thought we did some things extremely well in the second half of that game. Kofi was dominant, and then, obviously, Trent got on one of his little burners."

On facing the Cornhuskers

"It’s now on to a Nebraska team that is 0-fer (in the Big Ten) but is playing and probably could have won a couple of games pretty easily. They’re a team that's a veteran team. They’ve got a lot of guys that we saw last year in a game that was very difficult for us there. They’re one of the top teams in the country protecting the rim. They’ll throw the kitchen sink, I imagine, at Kofi in terms of doubles and triples and whatever.

"They give up a good amount of threes, but this is a team that is also electric in transition. I think they’ve got the third fastest length of time in possessions. They shoot it very quick. They’re led by an Illinois native at the point. (Alonzo) Verge is a guy that’s very talented and very crafty with the ball."

Episode 182: Gaining national traction

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Maybe you've heard it before. You don't just walk into Pinnacle Bank Arena ...

The mythos around Nebraska's home arena is probably a little overblown. And you'll really only get that reference if you regularly listen to CBS Sports' "Eye on College Basketball" podcast. Gary Parrish is a believer in Pinnacle Bank.

Illinois has, in fact, had some struggles in Lincoln, Neb., Like last year's game. It took a hero moment from Ayo Dosunmu to beat Nebraska in overtime. Most of the Illini's losses in the series history with the Cornhuskers have come since Nebraska joined the Big Ten and once Pinnacle Bank was completed in 2013.

So newly-ranked No. 25 Illinois (11-3, 4-0 Big Ten) doesn't have any guarantee tonight in Lincoln. Odds are the Illini beat the 'Huskers. Nebraska doesn't really have an answer for Kofi Cockburn — who does? — and if the 'Huskers focus their defensive attention firmly on the Illinois center there are plenty of shooters that can cause problems of their own.

That's the whole pick your poison thing when it comes to playing the Illini. It's real. It's a tough choice. Minnesota pivoted away from what has been the norm — double or triple teaming Cockburn — and focused on stopping Alfonso Plummer and the other shooters. Cockburn dominated. The Gophers lost big at home.

Scott Richey covers college basketball for The News-Gazette. His email is srichey@news-gazette.com, and you can follow him on Twitter (@srrichey).

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