It might seem a little early but Nebraska starts their conference games this Sunday. The Illini come to town with a 2-5 record and a second year head coach. We reached out to SB Nation sister site The Champaign Room for some insight into this years team. Lucky for us they sent us Austin Jabs who has done a great job answering our questions.
Corn Nation: What were the expectations of Illinois going into coach Brad Underwood’s second season from the fan base and those around the program? Is the rebuild going well and will we see a big improvement later this season or next?
Austin Jabs: I think many fans, myself included, have had mixed expectations. We ultimately judge a season based on gaining entry to the NCAA Tournament. That is the over arching barometer for success, right or wrong. I truly believe that this team had the potential to make the dance, but that required wins against teams on the same level as them (Georgetown, Xavier, Notre Dame, even Iowa State in Maui). With those four games coming up empty, Illinois has placed themselves behind a wall early in the season. With the talent Underwood has brought in, the rebuild is going as well as could be expected for a team that has missed out on the dance since the 2012-2013 season. The talented freshmen this team has in Ayo Dosumnu, Giorgi Bezhanishvilli, Alan Griffin, Tevian Jones, and Samba Kane will go a long way to building on future success. For now, it has been some growing pains as these athletes learn the college game. I think by late season this team will be one that nobody wants to face, which I know is a cliche thing to say. Looking at the Gonzaga game, a game Illinois almost won, Illinois has shown they have the potential to compete with anyone in the country, just not every single night.
CN: Illinois has played some pretty stiff competition this season with Georgetown, #1. Gonzaga, Iowa State, Notre Dame, and Xavier. All of which were losses. What did you see in those games against such tough competition that you think the Illini will build on?
AJ: I touched on it earlier, but the Gonzaga game still stings. The one that got away. Illinois had a furious comeback to give them a shot late to take a huge, potentially season defining win, and came up just short. The same can be said for Notre Dame. Frazier’s shot at the buzzer could not have been any closer without going in. Most of us in Illinois land watched that rim rattler on repeat, wept for a few hours, and did it all over again. The team, for the past few years, has just felt snake bitten when it comes to the fake rally. Often they get behind, bring it right back, and narrowly lose in the end. That is the life of an Illini fan. One thing that gives me hope is Trent Frazier and Ayo Dosunmu. Those two have taken leadership roles when their backs are against the wall. Frazier brought Illinois back against Gonzaga by himself. I think his leadership on the court will pay dividends down the road. Also, Georgi B and his cheerleading on the court and on the bench. What’s not to love about this kid. He seems to genuinely love basketball, this country, and this fan base.
CN: Can Illinois make a run this year in the Big Ten? Will they have what it takes to make it to the top? Why or why not?
AJ: I so badly want to be a homer here and say of course they can. A lot will be foretasted with their next two Big Ten games. Playing Nebraska and Ohio State to open Big Ten play is a tall order. Can you go in to Lincoln, a tough place to play, and take a win that you probably shouldn’t get? Hopefully. I will say this: If Illinois can open Big Ten play with a win on the road at Nebraska and an upset of Ohio State, I think this team has to be in the discussion to at least be a dark horse for the conference.The overlying question will be, however, can they play well enough to compete game in and game out?
CN: What are some of the strengths and weaknesses of this team?
AJ: I think when you talk strengths, the first thing you look at is the turnover game. Illinois averages over 18 turnovers forced per game, good for #20 in the nation. In the lower scoring Big Ten conference play, that stat can pay immediately in the win column. Coming in to a game against a team that has the 29th most turnovers per game in the country bodes well for the Illini. However, that same strength also plays in to one of their biggest weaknesses, and that is the high foul rate that plagues the Illini defense. Illinois has 160 fouls on the season, just under 23 per game. The amount of free throws opponents take against Illinois is one of the main reasons that Illinois struggles to keep the score down when forcing so many turnovers. Thankfully, Nebraska shoots under 70%, so that may help.
CN: Has Leron Black’s presence been missed this season? Is there a hole without him?
AJ: Absolutely. Black was a force down low and didn’t get the respect and accolades he truly deserved. Illinois has found a diamond in the rough with Georgi B, but Black’s vocal leadership and presence down low is missed game after game. Illinois has given up far too many back door cuts throughout the year, something Black helped limit with his time in Champaign. As our freshmen learn how to play in the Big Ten, due to the physicality of the league, this trend will likely continue throughout the season. Hopefully Illinois can find a way to limit those play in Lincoln or the Huskers could be out front in a hurry.
CN: Who are some of the players Nebraska fans should keep and eye on when Illinois comes to Lincoln? Who could really cause a problem for the Cornhuskers?
AJ: The usual suspects, probably. Ayo, Trent, Georgi. Keep an eye on Aaron Jordan. Jordan is shooting 50% from three, with 21 made thus far. If he gets hot, expect the Illini to feed him all day. Also, Junior transfer Andres Feliz is coming around over the last couple games. He could be a matchup nightmare coming off a 6 assist, 7 point game.
CN: Finally, what do you think will happen on Sunday and what is your prediction for the game?
AJ: I’m going to be an absolute homer here, so my apologies in advance. This game will come down to the turnover game. If Illinois can find a way to force Nebraska in to turning over the ball at a high clip and can capitalize on said turnovers, Illinois could be in for a good game. Additionally, the Nebraska defense is so good. Give me a coin flip at the end of the game with Illinois winning the turnover battle and game, 71-70.
Thank again to Austin for taking time to answer our questions. You can check out more of his stuff on www.thechampaignroom.com and at @ajabs85 on Twitter.