When Illinois visited Nebraska three weeks ago, the Cornhuskers owned a slightly better Big Ten record than the Illini.
In that game, the Illini cruised to a 76-50 victory in Lincoln, Neb., to accelerate their climb and trigger the Huskers' tumble. As they head into Tuesday's rematch in Champaign, Ill., Nebraska (10-12, 3-8) has dropped five of its past six. Illinois (15-6, 6-4) has won six of its past seven games.
Not only have the Huskers been losing games, they've been losing players. Starting forward Juwan Gary (left shoulder) and starting guard Emmanuel Bandoumel (knee) are out for the year after undergoing surgery.
"We're down some guys, but that doesn't change our approach," Nebraska coach Fred Hoiberg said. "That doesn't change our goal of going in every night and giving ourselves a chance to win."
Freshman Denim Dawson has jumped into the lineup for the last five games and provided 4.0 points and 4.6 rebounds per game. Fellow first-year player Jamarques Lawrence has stepped in at guard since Bandoumel's injury and averaged 9.5 points and 3.0 assists over the past two games.
Unfortunately for the Huskers, the Illini have been feasting on youngsters. In Saturday's 10-point win at Wisconsin, fifth-year senior wing Matthew Mayer delivered a career-high 26 points as he kept using his size, handle and shooting eye to give Badgers freshman guard Connor Essegian fits.
During Illinois' 6-1 stretch since Jan. 7, Mayer has averaged 13.7 points and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 40 percent on 3s and 82 percent at the line -- and those averages include a 0-point, 2-rebound effort in the Jan. 19 loss to Indiana when he was under the weather.
"Matt can really get going," Illinois coach Brad Underwood said. "We just kind of kept feeding the horse there. When Matt's going -- we've seen this in practice --he's scary. Some of the runs he's been on in games, in practices. ... He's an exceptional ballhandler, he's 6-foot-9, he's got a way around the post, he's a crafty offensive rebounder."
--Field Level Media