Nebraska is one of the country’s hottest teams.
That’s the big difference Wednesday night when the Illini host the Huskers in Champaign. Though Nebraska beat Illinois back on Feb. 12, then improving its record to 13-10 overall and 5-6 in the Big Ten, the Huskers were nothing near the story they’ve become since: a team on a meteoric rise through the conference standings, winners of five straight and on the NCAA tournament bubble.
“You watch them on film, and they’ve got it going right now at both ends of the floor, playing as good as they’ve played,” Illinois head coach John Groce said at his press conference Tuesday.
So, though it might have seemed a respite during a tough Big Ten slate when the season started, this late-February get together with the Huskers now becomes a tall task for the Illini.
The good news for the orange and blue is that the game is in Champaign and not in Lincoln, which has remarkably one of the toughest places to play in the conference. The Huskers have lost just once all season on their brand-new home floor at Pinnacle Bank Arena, the only loss coming to Big Ten-leading Michigan.
Away from home, meanwhile, Nebraska is just 3-9.
The bad news for the Illini, though, is that this is the same red-hot Nebraska team that’s recently scored wins over teams much higher in the standings than Illinois is, including wins in the Huskers’ last two road games at Michigan State and Northwestern.
That Feb. 12 matchup between these two teams featured a 33-point outburst from Shavon Shields, but it’s Terran Petteway who’s asserted himself as one of the Big Ten’s top scorers and top players overall. Petteway is averaging a conference-leading 18.4 points per game.
“I think he’s playing as high-level as anyone in our league right now. He gives them a swagger and a confidence,” Groce said. “He plays with a lot of confidence, he makes big-time shots for them. He’s really gifted offensively because he can score at all three levels of the court, whether that’s long-range, mid-range, finish game. I think he competes, I love his competitive toughness, at least that’s what I see on film. 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.”
The Huskers are making a late-season surge similar to the one that landed the Illini in the NCAA tournament a year ago. Pending a shocking run through the conference tournament, there’ll be no March Madness for the Illini this season, but Groce still likes what his team has been able to do in the past month or so, even if it hasn’t been accompanied by many wins.
“We’ll just continue to keep getting better. I do think we’ve improved a lot throughout the month in a lot of areas,” Groce said. “Certainly sometimes we’ve seen the results we’ve wanted, others we haven’t. But I think we’ve really improved, not only collectively but also individually.”
That could be demonstrated with a win over a very good team Wednesday.