CHAMPAIGN — This is the time of year when college basketball teams count the remaining games, calculate the postseason possibilities and find motivation in what might still be there for the taking.
Nebraska, which visits the University of Illinois at State Farm Center at 2:30 p.m. Sunday (Big Ten Network), is a perfect example.
Suddenly playing well in a Big Ten Conference that is nationally ridiculed for being in a “down” season, the Cornhuskers (20-8, 11-4) would appear to have a shot if they can finish with a flourish.
Based on most projections, that flourish would need to include a victory over the Illini (12-15, 2-12) and perhaps victories in its final two regular-season contests — home games against Indiana and Penn State.
In almost any other year, a 14-4 Big Ten mark alone would guarantee the Huskers inclusion in the NCAA Tournament. But not this year. So maybe Nebraska would have to tack in something extra in the Big Ten Tournament.
Either way, Illini coach Brad Underwood sees a team that is playing with a definite goal in mind.
“They’re a team that is playing for their NCAA Tournament lives,” Underwood said before practice Saturday morning.
Nebraska is on a winning stretch that began back with a Jan. 15 victory in Lincoln that still stings the Illini to talk about.
Michael Finke hit a 3-pointer with seconds to go that appeared to lock up a road win for Illinois. But James Palmer Jr. hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to give Nebraska a 64-63 victory.
Each team has veered in a different direction since. The Huskers, led by the inspiring play of Palmer, have won eight of nine including a 20-point win over Michigan.
The Illini have won just twice since then and are on a four-game losing streak.
Once again the Illini expect to be short-handed. Finke was still not cleared to practice as of Saturday and it looks like he will miss his third straight game after suffering a concussion in practice.
Look for freshman Greg Eboigbodin to once again start in Finke’s place. De’Monte Williams, who has been out with a hyperextended knee, is practicing and may be available.
Underwood said there’s no quick fix for the recurring problem of letting opponents get behind the Illini defense for layups and dunks. Better perimeter defense, he said, is the key.
“It’s pick your poison,” he said. “You either try to force turnovers and have your best post defense be your perimeter defense, or you sit back and double team then and then you’re constantly in rotation and you hope you don’t give up 3s.”
Acknowledging that Illinois does not have shot blockers, Underwood said, "It's a challenge. You try to take charges and wall up inside better. We reach too often instead of forcing guys to take layups.
“If our perimeter defense is really good our post defense is good because you can’t enter (the paint). That’s our philosophy. But the drives have really hurt us.”
Slow but steady improvement from Eboigbodin can help, but he’s learning on the fly.
“He’s been unbelievable at times, but the other night he got three clean looks at layups and didn’t shoot the ball,” Underwood said. “I don’t know if those were nerves or confidence.
“The one thing with Greg is the silly foul, the scouting report fouls. He has to know he can’t close out on a guy who is a driver who then runs by him. Then he reaches and grabs.
“He still has a tendency to use his hands instead of his feet when guarding in the post.”