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Battle-tested Illini ready for league opener | Local Sports

LINCOLN, Neb. — Ready or not, Big Ten Conference play has started.

The Illinois Fighing Illini should be as ready as any team in the league for the start of the conference season after playing five NCAA-Tournament caliber teams during its first seven games of the season.

And while second-year coach Brad Underwood wishes his team’s record was a little better than 2-5 overall, he still likes where the progress his Illini have made this year heading into today’s 4 p.m. game against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb.

“This sounds crazy, but instead of being 6-1 and played nobody or being undefeated and playing nobody — at least we know where we are as a team,’’ Underwood said. “We’ve been on the road and played a high-level opponent. We’ve played the best team in the country (Gonzaga). We have played back-to-back-to-back games in Maui. We’ve seen great bigs, and we’ve seen great guards.

“There will be no surprises. We’ve seen it.’’

But, seeing it and experiencing those teams is different than beating those teams.

Illinois has actually had very good opportunities to win games against Georgetown (had a second-half lead), No. 1 Gonzaga (had a shot for the lead come up short in the final seconds) and this past Tuesday, when Trent Frazier’s 3-pointer at the buzzer was inside of the basket for a brief moment before bouncing out as the Irish escaped with a 76-74 victory.

“We are right there,’’ Frazier said. “We are so close to getting a big win.

“We are trying knock the ball down, but we are going through some adversity.’’

That adversity for Illinois has been long dry spells, as the Illini went more than six minutes without scoring against the Fighting Irish. There have been similar situations in other losses this season.

“We are close,’’ said Underwood, agreeing with his sophomore leader. “But, we have to do some things better to win those games.’’

One of those things that stuck out to Underwood from Tuesday’s game was the 13 missed layups and the 19 missed opportunities to get the ball inside on a pick-and-roll play.

“If we would have just cleaned up the layups or the missed opportunities, we would have won that game,’’ he said, also noting that Notre Dame won the majority of the loose ball situations. “We played well enough to win, but the little things just got away from us.’’

And while the first seven games were non-conference games, Illinois freshman center Giorgi Bezhanishvili says nothing changes as the Illini prepare the Nebraska Cornhuskers (6-1).

“We prepare for every game the same,’’ he said. “Our focus is the same. Our goal is always the same. We want to get the win.

“We’ve already had big-time opponents and this is not different than the other games we have prepared for this season.’’

So, what makes Nebraska unique?

“We have watched a lot of film and they are one of the teams that run a lot of different offensive sets,’’ said Bezhanishvili. “We have to be ready for that, but we also have to do what we do. We need to stay i line and play good defense for 40 minutes.’’

Frazier, who leads the team with a 15.7 scoring average, admits that he, personally, needs to play better than Tuesday night, when he had six points on 3-of-11 shooting.

“That was probably the worst game that I’ve played at Illinois,’’ he said. “I didn’t think I did enough to help my team with the game.’’

Looking at the Huskers, nearly 80 percent of their scoring comes from the starting five of James Palmer Jr. (17.6), Isaac Copeland Jr. (15.0), Glynn Watson Jr. (14.7), Isaiah Roby (8.3) and Thomas Allen (6.6).

“We need to try to get to their bench,’’ Frazier said. “We want to make their bench beat us.’’

That’s because the Illini get about 29 points per game from their bench, while the Cornhuskers average just 17 points per contest from its reserves.

Other players averaging in double digits for the Illini are Ayo Dosunmu (13.6) and Aaron Jordan (12.0).

Today’s game can be seen on the Big Ten Network, while it can be heard on Fighting Illini Sports Network including Danville stations WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1

GAME 8ILLINOIS FIGHTING ILLINI AT NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS

Site — Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb.

When — 4 p.m. today

Records — Illinois 2-5 overall, 0-0 in the Big Ten Conference; Nebraska 6-1 overall, 0-0 in the Big Ten Conference.

Rankings — Neither team is ranked in the latest Associated Press Top 25 Poll.

Television — Big Ten Network

Radio — Fighting Illini Sports Network with Brian Barnhart and Doug Altenberger. Local stations include WDAN-AM 1490 and WDNL-FM 102.1.

Previous results — Illinois leads the all-time series 14-7 over Nebraska, and the two team split their two meetings a year ago. The Illini won 72-66 on Feb. 18 in Champaign; while the Cornhuskers won 64-63 on Jan. 15 in Lincoln.

Last games — The Fighting Illini suffered a 76-74 defeat on the road against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish on Tuesday; the Cornhuskers claimed a 68-66 triumph over the Clemson Tigers on Monday.

Up next — Illinois will continue conference play as the Illini host the Ohio State Buckeyes in a 6 p.m. game on Wednesday at the United Center in Chicago; Nebraska will travel to Minneapolis for an 8 p.m. contest on Wednesday against the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Projected Lineups — Illinois: G Trent Frazier, 6-1, sophomore; G Andres Feliz, 6-2, junior; G Ayo Dosunmu, 6-5, freshman; G Aaron Jordan, 6-5, senior; F Giorgi Bezhanishvili, 6-9, freshman. Nebraska: G Flynn Watson Jr., 6-0, senior; G Thomas Allen, 6-1, sophomore; G James Palmer Jr., 6-6, senior; F Isaac Copeland, 6-9, senior; F Isaiah Roby, 6-8, junior.

STATISTICAL LEADERS

Scoring — Illinois: Trent Frazier 15.7, Ayo Dosunmu 13.6, Aaron Jordan 12.0; Giorgi Bezhanishvili 9.5. Nebraska: James Palmer Jr. 17.6, Isaac Copeland Jr. 15.0, Glynn Watson Jr. 14.7.

Rebounding — Illinois: Jordan 5.2, Dosunmu 5.0, Bezhanishvili 4.8, Da’Monte Williams 4.0. Nebraska: Copeland Jr. 6.0, Isaiah Roby 5.6, Watson Jr. 4.6, Brady Heiman 4.5, Palmer Jr. 4.4.

Assists — Illinois: Dosunmu 3.3, Frazier 3.3, Feliz 2.9, Jordan 2.0. Nebraska: Watson Jr. 3.7, Palmer Jr 2.4, Thomas Allen 2.3.

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