Teams on opposite ends of the Big Ten Conference standings will meet on Tuesday night when Nebraska plays host to No. 25 Illinois in Lincoln, Neb.
Illinois (11-3, 4-0) is tied with Michigan State atop the Big Ten standings, having won four in a row including a 76-64 home victory over Maryland on Jan. 6 to match its best start in conference play since 2009-10. That game saw preseason conference Player of the Year — and Wooden Award midseason watch list member — Kofi Cockburn go for 23 points and 18 rebounds.
“He does a lot for us, offensively and defensively,” Illinois guard Trent Frazier said.
Cockburn, a 7-foot junior from Kingston, Jamaica, is fourth nationally in scoring (22.5 points per game) and third in rebounding (12.5), and in three career games against Nebraska he is averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks on 74.1 percent shooting.
He is averaging a strong 21.8 points per game on the road, along with 12 rebounds per game.
Since losing at home to Arizona on Dec. 11, coach Brad Underwood’s Fighting Illini are winning by an average of 29.5 points.
After a seven-week absence, the Illini returned to the polls Monday morning at No. 25.
Illinois had not been ranked following a 4-2 start to the season. Marquette and Cincinnati were both unranked when they beat the Illini last November. Illinois has won nine of its last 10 games.
With its elevation into the Top 25, the Fighting Illini join four other Big Ten teams in the rankings. Purdue, at No. 7, is the highest-ranked Big Ten team.
The Cornhuskers (6-10, 0-5) have dropped three in a row and eight of nine, most recently losing 93-65 at Rutgers on Jan. 8. Nebraska allowed a season-worst 58.3 percent shooting in that game and was outrebounded for the 14th time in 16 games this season.
Even the Huskers’ best effort of the season resulted in a defeat. Nebraska took No. 13 Ohio State to overtime before losing, 87-79, on Jan. 2 in Lincoln.
“It’s so disappointing to have that lack of competitiveness when things get difficult out there on the court,” Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to find a way to compete and be better.”
Bryce McGowens had 17 points against Rutgers, the sixth straight game in double figures for the freshman wing. McGowens leads Nebraska in scoring (15.7 per game), while Arizona State transfer Alonzo Verge Jr. is second in the Big Ten in assists per game at 5.6.
Another bright spot for the Huskers is junior forward Derrick Walker. Walker’s .747 field goal percentage is second in NCAA Division 1 men’s basketball.
Nebraska has lost eight straight games against Big Ten foes while Illinois has won 11 straight against league opponents. The Fighting Illini have won four in a row against the Cornhuskers, including a 77-72 win in Lincoln last season that ended a three-game skid at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
–Field Level Media