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3 keys and a prediction for Nebraska basketball vs. Illinois



Nebraska basketball
Dylan Widger-USA TODAY Sports

Another big opportunity awaits for Nebraska basketball on Sunday against Illinois and here are three keys, plus a prediction.

Nebraska basketball will ride a wave of momentum into Sunday’s game against 14th-ranked Illinois, which should be an even tougher test than sixth-ranked Wisconsinsixth-ranked Wisconsin.

That’s the difference between playing on the road and playing at home. At the Vault, Nebraska is one of the best teams in the country. The Huskers did lose to Creighton there but beat the likes of Michigan State, Purdue, and Wisconsin at the Vault this season.

It feels very much like 2014 — the last time Nebraska basketball made the NCAA tournament. There is still work to doThere is still work to do for the Huskers, as Fred Hoiberg pointed out after the win on Thursday. Nebraska basketball is 6-5 in the Big Ten and 16-6 overall.

The Huskers are tied for fourth right now in the league standings. But eight teams are 5-6 or 6-5. So the next two games are massive. Next up is a road trip to Northwestern on Wednesday, but first, Nebraska takes on Illinois, and here are three keys, plus our prediction.

Win the 3-point line

One of the first lines on the scouting report for Nebraska basketball has to be the 3-point defense because it hasn’t been good this season. It was better on Thursday night.

In Big Ten play, no team has been better at shooting the 3-pointer. Yet, no team has been worse at defending the 3-point line either. Nebraska is top two in 3-point makes, attempts, and percentage. They are also worst in the Big Ten in those same categories.

Illinois also has six players who average at least one 3-point field goal per game. Terrance Shannon, Luke Goode, and Coleman Hawkins each average 1.7 per game.

It’s going to be an uphill battle, but Nebraska has to win the 3-point battle if it’s going to win this game.

Get Rienk Mast going

C.J. Wilcher had a legendary performance in the upset over Wisconsin. But Rienk Mast was damn good too. He was scoring inside, hitting 3-pointers, and make no mistake, the Huskers don’t pull off that comeback without him.

Illinois is a stellar defensive team. They allow just 0.97 points per possession. One thing they excel at is limiting 3-point attempts (18 per game). Their entire defensive game plan is about forcing low-percentage 2s. They rank 22nd in defensive 2-point percentage and are top-100 in blocks.

Getting the ball inside isn’t going to be easy, but Mast is one of the better post players in the Big Ten. He’s got to have a good night or Nebraska is going to be stuck shooting long jumpers, which is a great way to get blown out.

Keep things even on the boards

These are two of the best defensive-rebounding teams in college basketball. Illinois is sixth in defensive boards; Nebraska basketball is 27th. However, Illinois is also 23rd in the country in offensive boards, while the Huskers rank well outside the top 200 in that category.

So the key for Nebraska isn’t necessarily grabbing offensive rebounds, it’s about limiting Illinois. The Fighting Illini don’t force many turnovers — just 8.4 in Big Ten play.

The extra-possession battle is going to come down to the offensive glass and if the Huskers get beat up there, and beyond the arc, they will have a tough time covering that 10-point spread.

Nebraska vs. Illinois prediction (5:30 PM CST, BTN)

This is a tough ask for Nebraska. Few teams are good enough to win at Assembly Hall this season and I don’t see the Huskers being one of them. I do think they are more competitive which is important in the NET rankings and for confidence ahead of Northwestern Tuesday, but Illinois is just too good and pulls away in the end.

Prediction: Illinois 78, Nebraska 70. 

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Chris has worked in sports journalism since 2005 writing for multiple newspapers and websites such as the Bleacher Report and Fansided before starting Husker Big Red, A fan site for hardcore followers of the #Huskers offering articles, podcasts, videos and more exclusive content on all things Nebraska