CHAMPAIGN — Some things are pretty simple to University of Illinois basketball coach Brad Underwood.
Veteran teams have a knack for ending up with 50-50 balls during the course of a basketball game. Young teams don't have that same knack.
In Tuesday's 76-74 loss at Notre Dame, roughly five 50-50 balls eluded the Illini — possessions that, if converted, would have flipped the outcome of the game.
They were simple things: Da'Monte Williams and Giorgi Bezhanishvili battling for a rebound without an Irish player in sight that scooted out of bounds. Opportunities passing through the hands and legs of the Illini or a technical foul on Kipper Nichols in the first half that gave Notre Dame four free throws and possession.
“Those are little things if you clean them up, you get the ‘W’ basically," Bezhanishvili said. "That’s communication with the team. You’ve got to communicate with your teammates."
Controlling that part of the game is key for a young Illinois team at 4 p.m. Sunday when the Illini open Big Ten play at Nebraska.
“We’re playing hard, but we’ve got to come up with those plays," Underwood said. "It’s not relaxing when you’re away from the ball. It’s blocking out every time. It’s being in tune with the game. We’re getting there."
Nebraska is the veteran team — a team that, in theory, should have a knack for getting those loose possessions. But the rest of the game circles around controlling an offense that has a wide array of plays and sets — "50 or 60," Underwood estimated.
The 6-1 Huskers' offense is spearheaded by 6-foot-6 senior guard James Palmer Jr. and his 17.6 points per game.
“I still go back to, you’ve got to do a good job on Palmer," Underwood said. "You’ve got to make his stuff uncomfortable."
Isaac Copeland Jr. (15 ppg) "scares me to death," Underwood said, and Isaiah Roby, though he only attempts 5.7 shots per game, is a match-up problem the Illini need to account for.
The Huskers have a clearly defined starting five of Palmer, Copeland, Roby, Glynn Watson Jr. (14.7 ppg) and Thomas Allen (6.6 ppg), but no bench player averages more than 13.7 minutes per game.
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“I don’t think they have the depth that maybe they’ve had on the perimeter," Underwood said. "That’s not taking a slight at any of their kids. Their starters are averaging plus-30 minutes a game and a lot of the games are blowouts. They’re a little different that way."
In other words, the starters do the heavy lifting.
“Their front court is really good," Illinois guard Trent Frazier said. "Our mindset is establishing defense and try to get to their bench and get their guys in foul trouble and try to make their bench play beat us."
There have been spurts this season where the Illini (2-5) have gone cold offensively. It happened Tuesday against Notre Dame and reared its ugly head during the three games at the Maui Invitational.
The Huskers' defense won't make things much easier on the Illini. Nebraska ranks fourth in the country in field goal percentage defense, allowing teams to shoot just 34.5 percent from the field, and is fifth in the country in average points allowed (53.7).
“Defensively, they do a great job," Underwood said. "They run you off the line; they don’t foul. We’ve got to make them guard. That’s the one thing we have to make them do is be patient enough to force them to close."
The Illini travel to Nebraska battle tested. They've played the No. 1 team in the country in Gonzaga and were a Frazier 3-pointer away from winning that game. They've hosted Georgetown, played Iowa State and Xavier and got their first true road game under their belt Tuesday at Notre Dame.
“This sounds crazy, but instead of being 6-1 and playing nobody, or undefeated and playing nobody, at least we know," Underwood said. "We've been on the road and played a high level opponent, we’ve played the best team in the country, we’ve played back-to-backs.
"We’ve seen great bigs and we’ve seen great guards. There’s not going to be any surprises. We have seen them. Now we’ve got to figure out how to win ‘em. We’ve got to be tough enough to do that."
Twice Frazier has had a chance to give Illinois a marquee win with a late shot, and twice the shot has fallen just short. On Tuesday, Underwood hugged his sophomore guard after his game-winning 3-pointer was tantalizingly close to dropping in. Underwood told Frazier that shot's going to fall.
Sometimes, it just takes one win against a high-major team. Illinois is 0-5 against those teams this year.
“We’re trying to knock this wall down," Frazier said. "We’re going through adversity right now. Just getting over that hump and getting one win will put us over it."