A week ago, I wrote about Illinois dealing with a seven-game skid. It grew to eight games — the longest in 40 years — before it was snapped Sunday night with a 60-55 win at Penn State.
Now, the Illini (14-10, 3-8) come to Nebraska (12-10, 4-6) on Wednesday night with some momentum provided by a new starting lineup.
Coach John Groce replaced two fifth-year seniors with true freshmen wings Kendrick Nunn and Malcolm Hill. The 6-foot-3 Nunn produced a career-high 19 points and four rebounds and hit a key 3-pointer with 20 seconds left. The 6-6 Hill had 11 points and three rebounds.
The two freshmen were Illinois’ lone double-figure scorers.
Groce had been starting two seniors and three juniors, then bringing five freshmen off the bench. He decided he needed a different mix of experience for better productivity.
The two replaced starters, Joseph Bertrand and Jon Ekey, hardly have been forgotten. They played 13 and 21 minutes at Penn State.
“Ekey and Bertrand’s maturity level, when I told them what I was going to do, was outstanding,” Groce said. “When you are able to bring off the bench a double-figure scorer like Bertrand (11.0) ... and Ekey, who is our leading 3-point shooter and defensive rebounder ... I thought that might give us a better blend.”
Nunn, out of Chicago Simeon High, was a consensus national top 75 recruit who had a scholarship offer from Nebraska. Hill, from Belleville, Ill., also was a top 75 recruit and finished third in voting for Illinois’ Mr. Basketball.
Groce said he is “leaning toward keeping the new lineup” against Nebraska.
“As long as those guys don’t come in here and can’t fit their head through the door because their head is too large or they lack humility,” he said.
Big Ten honors
Player of the week: Ohio State guard Aaron Craft. The 6-foot-2 senior from Findlay, Ohio, averaged 12 points, 5 assists, 4.5 steals and 3 rebounds in wins over Iowa and Purdue.
Rookie of the week: Wisconsin forward Nigel Hayes. The 6-7 freshman from Toledo, Ohio, averaged 14 points, 2.5 rebounds and 1.5 steals in wins over Illinois and Michigan State.
Quote of the week
Ohio State coach Thad Matta on the grind of playing through a Big Ten basketball regular season:
“Whoever coined the phrase ‘March Madness’ forgot about January and February.”
Stat of the week
Five players are within seven-tenths of a point of the Big Ten scoring lead: 1, D.J. Newbill, Penn State, 17.7; 2, Yogi Ferrell, Indiana 17.6; 3, Gary Harris, Michigan State, 17.6; 4, Terran Petteway, Nebraska, 17.5; 5, Nik Stauskas, Michigan, 17.0.