Typically, college basketball teams get a chance to take a break and go home for Christmas. This isn’t a typical year, however, and the COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically altered the college basketball schedule.
Instead of going home, many college teams are staying on campus through the holidays to reduce travel and minimize exposure risk to the novel coronavirus. Leagues are also trying to take advantage of the window where the rest of the student body isn’t on campus to play as many games as possible while the risk of exposure is lower, and that includes the Big Ten.
Conference play began in mid-December for the Big Ten with the Huskers playing their first league game on Tuesday at Wisconsin, and game two will be on Christmas Day as Nebraska hosts Michigan as part of a four-game Big Ten holiday slate.
“It is something where we wanted to keep our guys occupied and keep them busy over the holidays because of the fact that they couldn’t go home and see their families,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s just such a unique, strange time and weird year; you just have to do the best you can to get through it. I know a lot of people have talked about the mental health component, trying to keep them upbeat, trying to keep them occupied, trying to keep them busy as we possibly can with no school right now. Really, most of them for the first time in their lives not being with their families for the Christmas holiday. Our guys know that we’re here for them and we’ll do everything that we can to get them through this time and to hopefully make them as comfortable as possible.”
Hoiberg said his guys are excited about the opportunity to play on Christmas. If they can’t spend the holiday at home with their families, spending it on a basketball court is the next best thing.
“Not seeing your family is definitely tough, but this is what we signed up for,” senior Kobe Webster said. “We all have dreams of playing on Christmas one day at the next level, so having that opportunity to play over the holidays, all the fans watching us back home, we’re definitely excited for that. Like I said, this is what we signed up for. We’re just excited that we have basketball season with the COVID stuff going on, so we’re definitely looking forward to it.”
The Huskers dropped their conference-opener in Madison on Tuesday 67-53 after taking a 33-32 lead with just over 14 minutes to play. Despite a strong defensive effort for most of he game, the Huskers simply couldn’t get on track offensively against the Badgers, shooting 33.3% from the field, 29.6% from 3 and 52.9% from the foul line. However, Hoiberg came away from the game encouraged by their effort.
“Unfortunately we had a really poor night offensively — overall, from the 3, missed eight free throws again,” Hoiberg said. “They go 15-for-15 from the line. So we’re close. We were right there with all those things happening. It’s about keeping our guys together, continuing to play with great effort and hopefully knock down some shots in the next one.”
The Huskers didn’t get much time to address the issues that led to the loss with the quick turnaround, but since they weren’t going home they had plenty of time to get in the gym. After the loss, sophomore Dalano Banton said mental preparation is how they get over the loss and try to correct their mistakes.
“We’ve got to know that this one’s behind us,” Banton said. “We know that our most important game is our next game and we have a big opportunity on Christmas to have a game on Christmas. So we’re going to go back in practice and figure out what we have to do, put up a lot of shots, put up a lot of shots and just get back into that gym. Work on our free throws for sure, that’s something we need to better. So we know what we have to do in order to pull out a victory, so we’re just going to go back to the gym, go back with Coach and work on everything and be more prepared next time out.”
No. 19 Michigan is 6-0 so far this season and opened Big Ten play with a 62-58 win over Penn State in Ann Arbor on Dec. 13. Senior center Austin Davis suffered a foot injury that will keep him out indefinitely before that Penn State game, but freshman Hunter Dickinson made his first start in Davis’ absence and led the Wolverines with 20 points, seven rebounds and three blocks in 27 minutes.
Dickinson, a 7-foot-1, 255-pound center who was a top-50 recruit coming out of high school, is leading Michigan in scoring (15.7 per game), rebounding (7.3 per game) and shot-blocking (1.7 per game) while shooting 69.1% from the field. Senior forward Isaiah Livers (6-foot-7, 230 pounds) is the other Wolverine to shine a spotlight on as he’s averaging 15.2 points and 5.7 rebounds while shooting 43.3% from 3.
Wake Forest transfer Chaundee Brown is chipping in 10.0 points per game off the bench while shooting 44.4% from deep. Senior guard Eli Brooks (9.7 points per game, 40% from 3) and sophomore Franz Wagner (9.5 points and 7.0 rebounds per game) start on the wings while Columbia transfer Mike Smith starts at the point and contributes 7.8 points and 4.8 assists per game.
Led by Dickinson, Michigan is one of the best in the country at converting shots inside the arc at 60.4% on 2-point shots. They also share the ball incredibly well, averaging 18.3 assists while scoring 82.3 points as a team. The Wolverines are also hitting their free throws at a 77% clip. Defensively, Wisconsin is allowing 67.5 points and holding teams to 37.2% shooting inside the arc while blocking 5.5 shots per game.
Michigan is the second of a four-game stint against ranked teams as the Huskers dive head first into what Hoiberg called the best league in the country, and the coach said his team understands the challenge before them.
“Our guys know it, they watch, they’ve been seeing what’s going on in our league to this point early on early on in the season, in the nonconference portion and the early part of the conference season,” Hoiberg said. “They know, they understand it’s going to be a grind every time you step on the floor. The importance of taking care of your body, getting your proper rest, putting the right things in your body, preparing as well as you can to go out there and compete and hopefully give yourself a chance. We’re looking at 40 consistent minutes of basketball if we want a chance to win games … It’s going to be a grind, it’s going to be tough, but we just want to keep taking steps in the right direction and I’m confident our group will do that.”
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday is set for 5 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with Lincoln natives Kevin Kugler and Nick Bahe on the call.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.