Nebraska is off to a 2-0 start at home this season, but the Huskers are about to face their first real test with a road trip on Thursday to play another high-major school as part of the annual Gavitt Games.
The Gavitt Games are an annual event pitting teams from the Big Ten and Big East against each other. The Big Ten is 2-0 this year so far with Minnesota beating Providence on Monday and Purdue taking down Marquette on Tuesday. Wednesday’s match-ups feature Indiana at Seton Hall, Butler at Maryland and Creighton at Northwestern.
This year’s opponent for Nebraska is St. John’s, who is also 2-0 after a 77-61 win over New Orleans and an 80-55 blowout against Central Connecticut. Hall of famer Chris Mullin — a star with the Red Storm and then the Golden State Warriors in the NBA — is in his third season at the helm for the Johnnies.
“Coach Mullin — it’s funny to say ‘Coach Mullin’ when you’re looking at one of the top 50 players of all-time in the NBA — has got really good guards, an athletic, very mid-sized bunch, very active,” Coach Tim Miles said. “They can do a lot of things, they can disrupt you defensively and certainly then offensively, they’re electric. The guards can make plays, they’ve got playmaking guards, everybody shoots 3s. We wanted to test ourselves early and we’re certainly doing that about trying to contest 3s.
“It should be an exciting game. I’m looking forward to getting our team out. This is an important game because this is going to be a top-100 team we’re going to play against, and top-100 road wins are really important in the at-large process, and that’s something we’ve even talked about with our guys to understand that every game matters.”
This will be Nebraska’s first time leaving the friendly confines of Pinnacle Bank Arena during the regular season but the Huskers did take a trip during the preseason to play a charity exhibition game against Mississippi State.
“I think the charity game definitely helps, that the administration allowed us to spend the money to go on the road, get that game-like feature of this is how we eat on the road, this is how we do our walk-through, this is how we do business, especially with four guys that are new to that,” Miles said. “I think that will help and I’m glad we were able to do it.”
What advice would senior guard Evan Taylor give to the freshmen about road trips?
“Defense travels,” Taylor said. “Offense might not travel, but defense travels and that’s how we’re going to win the game. It’s a business trip. Enjoy it but you’re going to someone else’s environment so be focused.”
The Red Storm doesn’t start anyone taller than 6-foot-7 with a pair of transfers in former Arizona wing Justin Simon and former Michigan State forward Marvin Clark II along with wing Bashir Ahmed as the starting frontcourt.
In the backcourt is a pair of sophomores in 6-foot Marcus LoVett and 6-foot-2 Shamorie Ponds. Lovett has scored 38 points while Ponds has added 33 points, 16 rebounds and 10 assists in the first two games.
“Their guards are really good and they’re fast,” junior forward Isaac Copeland said. “They pretty much play four guards. We’ve got to be good on ball screens, communicate, switch onto shooters and drivers; just really be able to guard someone.”
St. John’s likes to push the pace and get out in transition as much as possible. Miles said he still wants to run when the opportunities present themselves, but he doesn’t want to get into a track meet.
“We’re going to be opportunistic when we run no matter what,” Miles said. “But this is a team where the more chaos [there is], the better they are, and we’re going to be cognizant of that.”
Taylor, as a senior leader and someone who will handle the ball quite a bit, knows how important playing smart basketball will be against the Red Storm.
“We’ve got to be poised and under control, but more disciplined — that’s the key word for this game,” Taylor said. “We don’t want to get into a pick-up type of game, sporadic. We want to be like a veteran team, under control.”
Another important factor will be perimeter shooting. Last season, Nebraska was 349th in the country in opponent 3-point percentage at 39.9 percent. Through two games this season, the Huskers have allowed both opponents to shoot 37.5 percent, although they have only given up 12 total made 3-point field goals.
St. John’s is 21-of-51 (41.2 percent) from deep through two games with Ponds and Lovett each taking at least seven attempts per game.
“I thought we’ve done a good job of eliminating attempts,” Miles said. “We’ve chased guys off the line. We’ve still had people make them on us, of course, at too high of a percentage. It’s been a little bit of everybody, some young guys and five-men, but we’re all in this together, so it doesn’t matter. They’ve got five-men that make 3s. We just have to continue to do a great job and just limit the damage. Obviously we want that percentage to go down, but if it’s not going to go down, then the number that they make has got to stay down, and that’s been pretty decent so far. That’s what we’re working on and that’s what our challenge is for this team, and to make more 3s.”
Tip-off in New York is set for 5:30 p.m. on Thursday on FS1.
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.