Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Blaise Keita Remains Out as Huskers Head to Michigan State

January 02, 2023

Nebraska opened the second part of the season with a win over Iowa in the friendly confines of Pinnacle Bank Arena Thursday. Now they’ll look to carry that momentum with them as they hit the road to take on Michigan State on Tuesday.

The Spartans are 9-4 and 1-1 in conference play, and Tom Izzo’s squad received a big boost in the team’s 89-68 win over Buffalo on Friday as senior forward Malik Hall returns the the lineup after missing eight games with an injury.

Hall scored 11 points in 12 minutes off the bench for the Spartans and is averaging 11.8 in his five games this season while shooting 58.3% from the field and 46.2% from deep.

“With Malik Hall back in the lineup, they’re a completely different team, and he was great the other night in limited minutes and scored double figures,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “They’re so fast in that building; that’s going to be the big challenge is making sure we get back. It’s always a shock, I think, a little bit to your system. You try to simulate it as much as you can in practice, but you’re never able to do it fully with the way they get the ball up the floor. We have to take away transition 3s, have to take away rim baskets in transition. A big part of that is taking care of the ball. We can’t give them pick-sixes, we can’t give them live-ball turnovers, where they capitalize pretty much every time. 

“And then rebounding, they’re sending everybody to the glass. It’s been the identity of Coach Izzo’s teams for years, and we have to finish off possessions with a physical two-hand rebound.”

Nebraska’s defensive rebounding and turnover rates have been up and down all season long, and locking in on those areas will be key as the Huskers (8-6, 1-2 Big Ten) hit the road where they are 1-2 so far this season (and 1-3 in neutral-site games).

“We’ve been better, but when you go on the road into a great environment, it’s always different,” Hoiberg said. “So you have to go out there and it’s imperative you get off to a good start… It’s a different mentality on the road and you have to go out there with the right mindset, especially when you’re playing against a Tom Izzo-led team.”

The primary offensive threat this season for Michigan State has been senior Joey Hauser who has nearly doubled his scoring average from a season ago to lead the Spartans at 14.1 points per game on 49.3% from the field including 44.8% from 3. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound forward is also grabbing 7.5 rebounds and dishing out 2.5 assists per game.

“He’s obviously shooting the ball the best he has in his career,” Hoiberg said. “I think he’s 44% right now; very aggressive, can score it at all three levels, really good post-up player — they post Joey more than anybody else on the team. But he’s playing with a really high level of confidence right now.”

With 6-foot-9, 240-pound big man Mady Sissoko (6.7 points on 56.9% shooting and 6.5 rebounds per game) in the middle, Hauser’s size and Hall’s ability to play the three or four at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds, Izzo has a lot of versatility in his frontcourt. 

“When you add Malik Hall back into the mix, it put’s you in a really tough position because they can play so big and then they also have the ability to play smaller with those two guys,” Hoiberg said. “And their bigs have grown. What I’ve seen out of Mady Sissoko over the course of the last couple years is incredible, the strides that he has made — rolling to the basket, catching lobs, free-throw shooting, how he’s improved in that area.”

The Spartans also have a dangerous backcourt in senior Tyson Walker (13.4 points and 3.3 assists per game, 36.4% from 3) and junior A.J. Hoggard (12.5 points and 6.2 assists per game) plus sophomore sharp-shooters Jaden Akins (8.2 points per game, 46.2% from 3) and Pierre Brooks (6.8 points per game, 39.2% from 3).

“Akins looks like he’s really got it going and got his confidence back from the 3-point line, and Pierre Brooks as well,” Hoiberg said. “So again, they put you in a lot of different difficult positions. They’re experienced, they’ve got great leadership in their backcourt.”

Nebraska will again be short-handed in the frontcourt on Tuesday as back-up center Blaise Keita will miss his second straight game with the ankle injury he suffered against Queens on Dec. 20.

“He’s making strides, he’s getting back out there in drills, he feels a lot better than what he did, but just not quite ready to go yet,” Hoiberg said.

Keita’s absence will like mean an expanded role for sophomore Wilhelm Breidenbach who will serve as the primary back-up at both the four and the five — if he can stay out of foul trouble. He picked up two fouls in less than 15 seconds during his first stint against Iowa and quickly returned to the bench. He played 11 minutes in the second half, however, grabbing seven rebounds and blocking two shots as the Huskers outscored the Hawkeyes by five with him on the floor. 

“When he got his second foul, he didn’t pout, he didn’t complain, he came over the bench, he was positive and then second half, he made as big an impact, I thought, as anybody on the floor just with hustle plays,” Hoiberg said. “Going out, getting us second-chance opportunities, and those are momentum-builders and to get your crowd into it. You saw how appreciative, I think, our fans were when Wilhelm was getting those extra opportunities for our group. He’s going to start making shots. He’s shooting very well in practice. He’s hit a couple in games. His stroke looks better, it looks more confident. 

“And the versatility that Wilhelm gives our team because of his ability to play both frontcourt spots, I think you can see what that can do for you just from floor spacing. Even if he’s not making it, it still spreads the floor for a guy like Sam Griesel, for our drivers that can get into the paint. He’s going to have a big, big impact in the second half of the season for us.”

Tipoff at the Breslin Center on Tuesday is set for 6 p.m. on Big Ten Network with Kevin Kugler and Stephen Bardo on the call.

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