Nebraska men’s basketball and lengthy Big Ten losing streaks have been a horrifyingly efficient dynamic duo under head coach Fred Hoiberg.
His first season infamously featured the Huskers starting 2-2 in conference play before losing 17 consecutive games to close the season — the cherry on top was a loss in the opening round of the 2020 Big Ten Tournament. Nebraska lost its first nine Big Ten games last season before finishing 3-16 in Big Ten play.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that history is repeating itself.
The Huskers, seemingly lightyears away from any and all preseason expectation, are 0-5 in Big Ten play following perhaps its worst performance of the season, a 93-65 loss at Rutgers on Saturday. Hoiberg’s team was unspectacular in all aspects of play, especially on the defensive end.
Rutgers shot 58.3% from the field, 55.6% from 3-point range and became the fourth team to crack 90 points on Nebraska this season. Nebraska’s defense, which ranked No. 40 nationally, according to kenpom.com last season, currently ranks No. 150 following the drubbing.
Hoiberg, too, was largely disappointed with his team’s effort throughout. Saturday marked the third such time Nebraska has been thoroughly beaten this season, joining previous blowout losses at the hands of Michigan and Auburn. Following stretches of positive play, Nebraska sunk back to a depressing nadir.
“We just folded. You’ve got to have some semblance of mental toughness if you’re going to compete at this level,” Hoiberg said following the Rutgers loss. “We did not have that tonight.”
What’s worse, the Scarlet Knights are not a particularly potent offensive unit, ranking No. 105 in offensive efficiency, according to kenpom.com. Tuesday’s opponent, No. 25 Illinois, ranks ninth in the same metric.
Illinois, at least on paper, is Nebraska’s most imposing opponent yet. At the very least, the Fighting Illini have the most imposing player Nebraska’s matched up against so far this season.
Junior center Kofi Cockburn will provide yet another test for a Nebraska interior defense that faltered against Rutgers. Cockburn isn’t just any other interior presence, though. He’s one of college basketball’s best players. The 7-foot Kingston, Jamaica native ranks fourth nationally with 22.5 points per game and third nationally with 12.5 rebounds per game. There’s a reason why he’s one of the leading candidates for National Player of the Year.
Whether or not Nebraska can stop Cockburn will determine if it has a puncher’s chance to knock off the Fighting Illini at Pinnacle Bank Arena. That’s easier said than done. His 285-pound fame makes him near-impossible to move inside, and he moves extremely well for his size. Cockburn is an incredible rim-protector. He is athletic enough to operate the pick-and-roll effectively and make plays at the rim while also exhibiting a deft touch at the rim.
Additionally, he’s more than capable of breaking down his likely Nebraska defensive matchups. Hoiberg will likely deploy a rotation of junior forward Derrick Walker and freshman forward Eduardo Andre to matchup with Cockburn, but he found success against the pair last season. He scored 21 and 24 points, respectively, in both matchups last season, eventually overwhelming Nebraska inside.
If history is any indication, Nebraska should play Cockburn extremely physically. Hoiberg’s gameplan when Nebraska and Illinois met for the first time last season revolved around making Cockburn earn his points inside. Postgame, Hoiberg made sure to note that he told his big men “that they had 15 fouls to give,” implying that the Huskers will go to great lengths to ensure Cockburn is flustered.
Illinois, however, is much more than Cockburn. Fifth-year senior guard Trent Frazier is a reliable guard and consistent scoring option coming off of a 16-point game in Illinois’ win over Maryland on Jan. 6. Fellow fifth-year senior guard and Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer is one of college basketball’s best 3-point shooters, ranking No. 44 nationally with a 41.9% 3-point conversion rate. He’s Illinois’ second-leading scorer, averaging 16.4 points per game.
Senior guard/forward Jacob Grandison is perhaps the Fighting Illini’s most improved player. After averaging just 4.6 points per game in significant action last season, he’s seen a scoring uptick to 12.1 points per game. Sophomore forward Coleman Hawkins has enjoyed a similar boost in production in becoming one of Illinois’ more frequently-utilized players, being used on 21.8% of all possessions when he’s on the court, according to kenpom.com.
It all translates into a Fighting Illini offense that’s difficult to stop. Head coach Brad Underwood’s squad ranks No. 25 nationally in scoring offense, averaging 80.4 points per game, and also shoots 38.8% from 3-point range as a team — good for the second-best mark in the Big Ten.
Where Illinois might hold its most decisive advantage is on the glass. Nebraska’s rebounding struggles under Hoiberg have been well-documented, and this year is no exception. According to kenpom.com, the Huskers rank near the bottom of Division I basketball in both offensive and defensive rebounding rate, which could pose extremely problematic against the likes of Cockburn.
Entering Tuesday’s game, Illinois ranks No. 1 nationally in offensive rebounding percentage, according to kenpom.com, and No. 51 in defensive rebounding percentage. If crashing the glass is not an emphasis for Nebraska, the contest could very well go off the rails quickly. Solid defensive performances from Walker, Andre and junior forward Lat Mayen are a must.
Nebraska, meanwhile, could hold a tangible advantage of its own. Illinois ranks No. 294 in offensive turnover percentage and No. 319 in defensive turnover percentage, according to kenpom.com, which means the Fighting Illini frequently turn the ball over and don’t force many of their own.
In all, Nebraska pulling out an upset victory would require a monumental defensive effort combined with consistent offensive play for a full 40 minutes, which is yet to be seen against a Power Six opponent this season. The Huskers pulling one-off Big Ten upsets isn’t out of the ordinary, though, and such results just might be Nebraska’s best chance at pulling out a positive conference result.
Against Illinois, however, that might prove too tall of a task.