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Cakewalk Continued

The Illini men’s basketball team will likely face a good opponent during the 2022 B1G season. But not tonight.

Nebraska is winless in conference play, and 6-10 overall. Losses include the Western Illinois Leathernecks, a team that’s 1-3 in the Summit League so far this season. WIU beat Denver before losing to Omaha, St. Thomas and Oral Roberts in league play.

Lat Mayen and Illini Zach Griffith, who got the start on Senior Day

What, you ask, is St. Thomas?

Good question. Evidently it’s a basketball school in Saint Paul, Minnesota, and evidently it became a member of the Summit League after some less obscure basketball team departed for the greener pastures of MVC, or MAC or something. Probably.

Transitive property, that’s how bad Nebraska is.

But Lat Mayen is still in Lincoln. He led the Huskers in scoring during last years overtime “thriller” against Ayo (31 pts) and Kofi (21). Brad Underwood says Nebraska is even better at rim protection this year, so Illinois better find its shooting rhythm from the arc.

Injured guard/bulldog Trey McGowens was the Huskers’ top scorer in the return game, an 86-70 Illini win in Champaign. He scored 16 in that game, and 15 the first time around. Some regarded him as the Huskers best player last season. This year, it’s his kid brother, the first five-star recruit in program history. Bryce McGowens is a lanky scorer

Derrick Walker is also back, and still beefy in the middle. He was Nebraska’s other interior defender last year, but caused the Illini few problems. In the first game, he’d just returned from a major suspension. In the second game, he had foul trouble.

The remaining Husker of interest is Alonzo Verge, whose career has had a lot of ups and downs since the days when John Groce was recruiting him.

This should be a snoozer. Let’s hope you find it restful.

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Illini basketball

One Down, One To Go

Once upon a time, Illinois basketball ws incompetent in the face of zone defense. Now that everyone’s zoning all the time, the Illini have become zone busters.

It’s man-to-man defense that freaks them out.

Against a 13-16 Nebraska team, losers of seven straight and winless in B1G road games, the Illini managed only 9 assists. Illinois opened each half with a major cold-streak, the ball sticking to Ahmad Starks’s hands as if glued there. All that nifty passing we saw against Northwestern reverted to reluctance. Nebraska jumped to a 9-3 lead in the first half, and scored the first 11 points of the second.

On the bright side, Illinois converted on 43.8% of its three-point attempts. Rayvonte Rice was 4-7 from the arc, bringing him to 46.5% for the season, and adding weight to the notion that his nine game absence didn’t affect his rhythm. Illinois’ overall shooting was, once again, less accurate than its long-distance marksmanship, at 42.9%. Converting 20 of 23 free-throws = 87% from the stripe.

The difference in the game was Terran Petteway’s 1-of-9 incompetence from the arc. Petteay shoots only 31% from three, but you can imagine how different the final minute would have been if he’d connected on those other two. We’d not have seen Ryan Schmidt.

Cornhusker big man Leslee Smith enjoyed a career night against the Illini. His nifty post moves continually fooled Illinois’ defense. He finished with season highs of 8 points and 9 rebounds.

Fortunately, he’s a senior, so he’ll not likely haunt the Illini in the future. The reason you don’t remember him from previous games is that he’s normally a sub, and a JUCO transfer at that. Starter Walter Pitchford didn’t make the trip, after injuring a hip in practice on Monday.

THE NEAR FUTURE

So, here we are. It’s March, the final week of the season, and we still don’t know whether Illinois will play in the NCAA Tournament. It’s an unsettling feeling.

We got rid of Bruce Weber because we were bored with this feeling. But if you’re tiring of John Groce, remember that it’s Year Three. The Illini have a great opportunity at Mackey Arena on Saturday, and whatever people say about Purdue’s resurgence, the Illini match up with the Boilers better than any team in the B1G.

The Boilers aren’t even a paper tiger. Their paper looks lousy. Their best win in conference was Iowa, at home. They also nipped OSU 60-58 at Mackey. But Rutgers gave t hem a game there. They lost all the games they were expected to lose, and achieved zero surprise wins, unless you think beating Indiana at Bloomington is an accomplishment.

Purdue’s embarrassing losses include Kansas State, Gardner-Webb, Vanderbilt and something called North Florida. (What’s the point of North Florida? Humidity and bugs?) The Ospreys other big win this season was Elon. In fairness, they did win the Atlantic Sun conference, despite a loss to South Carolina Upstate.

Purdue lacks the fire in the belly that previous Boilermaker teams displayed. There’s no Lewis Jackson to punch you in the mouth. They don’t even have a Ryne Smith. PG Jon Octeus might be their best match-up against Illinois, when going position by position. Rapheal Davis is a success story for them, but you’d rather have Malcolm Hill.

Yes, Isaac Haas is huge, but he didn’t seem to adapt well to Illinois’ dribble-penetration last time. AJ Hammons continues to confound Purdue fans, who feel less confident about the game than Illini fans, for good reason. Matt Painter won’t go big with twin towers, which would stymie Illinois (a team that fares poorly among the trees). Painter is also philosophically opposed to switching defenses within a possession, which is the sort of thing that confuses the Illini.

Purdue definitely has more to lose on Saturday, and they know it.

THE FUTURE FUTURE

Melvin Nunn had to work in the morning, and D.J. Williams had to school in the morning. But they came down for the season finale anyhow.

Nunn met Piankhi Lands for the first time. Lands attended his first ever Illini game in Champaign, as did elder son Jalen Coleman-Lands. (Their first ever Illini game was January 3rd, in Columbus.)

Nunn told Lands to be prepared, as a father, for the mental turmoil his son will endure as a freshman. Learning college defensive schemes, Nunn said, is a trial for all freshman, no matter how talented and experienced. Lands understood that there would be a learning curve for basketball. He seemed more leery of the forthcoming media onslaught.

“Get used to it,” advised Nunn Sr.

Piankhi Lands is an amiable guy, who chose to forgo a college basketball career of his own. But he’s bullish about his sons careers. (Younger son Isaiah, a point guard at LaLumiere, and daughter Sincere joined the family trip to Champaign. Both Isaiah and Jalen are on Spring Break until March 11.)

Lands Sr. says LaLumiere expects to compete for a national championship, to be played in New York City this spring. He also expects Jalen to compete for the nation’s high school three-point shooting title, which competition will occur over Final Four week in Indianapolis.

Before making my way to the media room, to cover John Groce’s post-game remarks, I introduced Lands Sr. to Kenny Battle, whom Lands recalls from his Flyin’ days. Lands told Battle that his son was a hard worker, and Battle says he hopes Jalen will compete for the Kenny Battle Award.

I thought that was hilarious. It also reminded me how fortunate I am to have this gig. It’s an honor to talk about basketball with that man.