Nebraska Basketball Game Day: Illinois


Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-10, 0-5) vs Illinois Fighting Illini (11-3, 4-0)

Tuesday, Jan. 1, 2021 – 7:30 p.m. CT

Pinnacle Bank Arena

TV: BTN

Radio: Husker Sports Network

Internet: FOX Sports App

1. Try to contain Kofi

Nebraska won’t face a much bigger challenge – both literally and figuratively – than All-American Illinois center Kofi Cockburn.

The 7-foot, 285-pound junior is not only one of the largest and strongest centers in all of college basketball, but he’s also skilled enough to dictate games on both ends of the floor all by himself.

So there’s no secret that putting two or even three bodies on Cockburn every time he touches the ball will have to be the basis of the Huskers’ defensive game plan tonight.

However, NU needs to walk a fine line in that regard because of the supporting cast Cockburn has around him at all times.

Illinois will have four legitimate 3-point shooters on the floor with him, so over-committing to defending the paint could be just as damaging if the Huskers don’t give maximum effort in closing out on the perimeter.

In other words, Cockburn is averaging 22.5 points per game on 62-percent shooting while the Fighting Illini are hitting 39 percent from behind the arc as a team.

Nebraska will have to pick its poison, but its only hope is going all-in on stopping Cockburn and hoping Illinois goes cold from deep.

2. Defend without fouling

Saying you’re going to commit to stopping Cockburn, but it’s an entirely different challenge to do so without racking up fouls in your frontcourt.

Cockburn currently ranks second nationally with 8.1 fouls drawn per 40 minutes, making one of the most difficult defensive tasks in the Big Ten even harder to accomplish.

Nebraska is already at a disadvantage in the paint with its lack of size and depth, and we saw what happens when the few pieces it has are forced to the bench due to foul trouble last time out at Rutgers.

Derrick Walker and Lat Mayen both picked up early fouls and were limited to 22 minutes of playing time each. As a result, the Scarlet Knights scored 44 points in the paint and shot an NU opponent season-high 58.3 percent from the field.

The Huskers have to match Cockburn’s physicality and must be smart in how they defend and not take unnecessary chances.

3. Get Verge going again

For better or worse, no player ultimately defines Nebraska’s overall success more than Alonzo Verge Jr.

When the senior point guard is on his game, the Huskers are a different team offensively. His ability to drive and score can be as good as anyone, but he’s also capable of making plays as a passer that no other Husker can.

However, as we’ve seen over the past few games, that script can take a complete 180 when Verge struggles.

In the three games since NU returned from the holiday break, the Arizona State transfer has averaged 5.0 points on 5-of-23 shooting (21.7%), 2.3 rebounds, with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 2.17-to-1.

He’s also played an average of 24.0 minutes after seeing 30.0 over the first 13 games, including just 20 last time out at Rutgers, his second-lowest total of the season.

Given how poorly and inconsistently Nebraska has played offensively this year, it’s clearly limited with how many weapons it can lean on to win games in the Big Ten. Verge is one of them when he’s playing well, and he needs to get back to his old form as soon as possible.

Illinois (-13.5) 84, Nebraska 68

Robin’s season record: 13-3

vs. the spread: 10-6



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