After playing seven games in 12 days including three road games in a four-day span, the Cornhuskers got a chance to take a deep breath and relax a bit. After a constant cycle of game prep and game day, Coach Fred Hoiberg gave his team the day off on Thursday before getting back into preparation mode for Saturday’s game at Purdue.
“It was refreshing,” senior guard Kobe Webster said. “You hate to have a day off after a loss, but obviously we needed to rest up and that’s what we did. Take care of our bodies and then today just come out and sharpen some things up, make sure that we have our legs tomorrow.”
As refreshing as the day off may have been, it wasn’t quite enough to fully recharge the team’s batteries after the gauntlet that went through the previous two weeks, and Hoiberg had to change his plan after the Huskers got back on the court Friday morning.
“I wanted to get them up and down today but we literally had three possessions in a row where I had three guys limp off the court,” Hoiberg said. “I just, after that, made the decision let’s just walk through. We were just dropping like flies. Generally the second day after an extended trip is the one where you’re more tired. Yesterday, you kind of go on adrenaline after that first day back home and then the second day, that’s when it hits you.
“We got a really good sweat early in practice but when we put our scout in and the game plan in, generally we go live and get them up and down a little bit more, we just weren’t able to do that because of a couple little things. Not that any of them have to sit out tomorrow, but literally three straight plays I had guys limp off the court.”
Hoiberg said he’ll get the team back on the court for some work at noon on Saturday and hopes they’ll have their legs for the game later in the day.
After a rough return from the team’s pause on activities, the Huskers put together two of their better performances of the season in an overtime loss to Illinois and a win at Penn State. The fatigue caught up to them as they faded down the stretch in both games at Maryland earlier this week.
Over the last four games, Teddy Allen has played some of his best basketball as a Husker, averaging 18.0 points on 50% from the field, 44.4% from 3 and 85.7% from the free-throw line. A handful of other Huskers have been up and down offensively at different points throughout that stretch, but one player who’s struggled to get on track is Trey McGowens. The junior guard is averaging 7.5 points on 26.2% shooting over the last four games with 2.0 assists and 2.8 turnovers per game.
“I think he’d probably be the first one to say right now that he is probably struggling a little bit with his confidence,” Hoiberg said. “We worked this morning before practice on some things to get him closer to the line on some of his shots. He’s shooting his 3s four or five feet behind the line right now. He’s had some really good takes to the basket, he just hasn’t finished them. Some of that is he’s gathering the ball a step or two outside of where he should, so watching some of those things.”
In the four games before Nebraska hit pause, McGowens averaged 12.8 points on 41.7% shooting including 5-of-8 from 3 and 80% from the foul line plus 2.3 assists and 1.8 turnovers. He played well in the team’s first game back against Michigan State (13 points on 5-of-9 shooting) but has struggled since.
“Trey is probably the best player that we had going into the break,” Hoiberg said. “He was phenomenal and he really, I think, figured out when to attack and kind of when to back off a little bit and get us into an action. It’s taken not only Trey, but all of our guys, it’s going to take time as they work their way back into shape after the shutdown that we had. It’s affected some of them more than it has others.
“Trey, we still want him to continue to be aggressive. I thought his two 3s in the first half [against Maryland] were right on, and unfortunately they didn’t go in. I think he was almost 45% from the 3-point line before the shutdown happened. It’s just getting that rhythm back, having a game where he sees the ball go through the hoop and hopefully give him some confidence back.”
Nebraska will need McGowens to return to form moving forward as the schedule does not get any easier. Up next is a home game against a 14-8 Purdue team (9-6 in Big Ten play). The Boilermakers are coming off a 75-65 win against Michigan State on Tuesday.
“They do a great job,” Hoiberg said. “You see the pace they run their actions with is as good as anybody in the country. Matt Painter I think does a phenomenal job with his team and the actions that he runs not only to get his bigs touches on the block, but also the actions that he runs for his shooters coming off screens.
Purdue junior Trevion Williams (6-foot-10, 265 pounds) is one of the best bigs in the conference, leading the Boilermakers with 16.5 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. When Williams takes a seat, Painter turns to Zach Edey, a 7-foot-4, 285-pound freshman chipping in 8.0 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 14.1 minutes per game,
“Trevion Williams, not only can he score it but the 28 that he scored against Michigan State he did it in such a variety of ways,” Hoiberg said. “His moves, the 15-foot jump hooks off the window from the left side of the floor, his ability to pass — he’s one of the best big passers that I’ve seen. It starts with him and then you bring in a 7-4 player in Edey that they’re going to throw it to pretty much every possession he’s in the game and then play off of him with their shooting. They just out you in a tough position because their bigs are so skilled on the block and then they’ve got guys that can knock down shots around them.”
The Huskers played small quite a bit during their back-to-back games at Maryland, in part because Derrick Walker was limited to eight minutes in the first game and in part because Maryland plays most of the game without a true big. That won’t be the case on Saturday, however, and Hoiberg said it will be all hands on deck for Walker, Eduardo Andre and Yvan Ouedraogo in the middle.
“A big part of it was Derrick’s condition,” Hoiberg said. “We made the decision not to take any chances and sat him in the second half of that first game and then second game, we’re just gradually going to get him back going again. And also a lot of it had to do with how Maryland plays; they play smaller than pretty much every team in the league … All three of those guys are going to have to be ready. We’re playing I think as good of a big in the country tomorrow with Williams and then Edey off the bench. They just pose so many problems. They throw it in to them most possessions and we’re going to have to have all three of those guys ready to come in and just keep fresh bodies on them to try to low them down as much as we can.”
Nebraska can’t load up too much to stop Purdue in the paint, however, as the Boilermakers have three players in junior Sasha Stefanovic, freshman Brandon Newman and sophomore Isaiah Thompson shooting better than 41% from 3.
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday is set for 4:30 p.m. on Big Ten Network. Kevin Kugler and Jess Settles will call the game.