Nebraska was 6-2 when it met Michigan State last season, though that was a road contest early on and Michigan State was a Death Star at that point, having beaten back-to-back top-10 teams by double-digits in the run-up to the game. This Nebraska team has the same core pieces as that Nebraska team — the one that lost by 29 — but to the guys in the Husker locker room, this one is different.
“Our style of play is different, I would say, than last year,” forward Isaiah Roby said Wednesday when he met with the media in anticipation of Thursday night’s clash with another top-10 Spartan team. “Everybody’s role is different.”
Sophomore guard Thomas Allen Jr. is a starter now. Reserve center Tanner Borchardt has a legitimate role off the bench. Wing Nana Akenten has taken hold of the sixth man spot. Roby is coming into his own and senior guard Glynn Watson Jr. is having his most efficient season ever and forward Isaac Copeland is finally fully healthy.
But there’s another major difference.
Flash back to Minnesota for a second. Nebraska was up 10 on the road on the Gophers with eight minutes and change to play. Minnesota closed that game on a 17-5 run to walk out with a win.
Okay, now go back to Monday’s 66-51 win over 25th-ranked Indiana. The Huskers took a 25-7 lead at one point early and saw that margin slashed all the way down to three points early in the second half.
“Even during the Iowa game you could tell, on the court we’re not talking, our bench guys aren’t talking, it kind of looked like we were waiting for something bad to happen almost,” Roby said. “[Indiana] made a push and I remember last game, I just kept on saying every time ‘We’ve been here before, we can’t blow this lead.’”
They didn’t. Nebraska got the job done on the road, a place it didn’t do find much success at last season, and regardless of how badly Archie Miller wants you to think his team just had an off night, Nebraska did things a top program does to win games.
“To be honest, that was like the perfect game,” Roby said. “To win the game by 15 on the road, that was huge, so going into Michigan State I couldn’t ask for a better game to lead into it.”
Because last season Nebraska was an out-of-nowhere team not saddled with the weight of expectations but also bereft of experience in big games and crucial moments. This year the Huskers are the opposite, and to this point they’ve lived up to the expectations. So, when No. 6 Michigan State (15-2, 6-0 Big Ten) makes its way to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Thursday for a 7 p.m. tip with Nebraska (13-4, 3-3 Big Ten), it will find some familiar faces with some very different attitudes.
“We’ve got to fight these guys,” head coach Tim Miles said. “We’ve got to run to the fight and anything less will get you [beat].”
Oh, and Nebraska will be trying to defend a 20-game home winning streak. Doing so and bumping that streak to 21 games would set a program record. Two seasons ago, Nebraska was 7-8 at home. That year was a turning point of sorts (Nebraska has lost one home game since) in that from then on, the Huskers took greater pride in locking down The Vault.
“It’s meaningful to this group to play well at home,” Miles said.
And Michigan State didn’t have to play Nebraska at home last season. The truth is the Huskers are different inside PBA. They’re deadlier. There’s a lot of confidence this time around will be different simply because of that fact. But with Michigan State serving as the proverbial bar for Big Ten teams of late, Miles was asked if he was curious how the Huskers would stack up.
“Yeah, I am,” he said with a grin. “I’m curious.”
In a lot of ways, James Palmer Jr. is the X-factor in finding out that answer.
The Huskers’ star wing hadn’t reached the height of his scoring powers last season when they traveled to East Lansing. The scoring binges that made him an All-Big Ten selection wouldn’t come for another month.
Palmer shot 4-for-12 in that meeting (15 points), didn’t rebound the basketball (two boards) and didn’t initiate offense (three assists).
This year, in three of Nebraska’s biggest games (Creighton, Seton Hall, Oklahoma State), Palmer has 30 points, 29 points and 29 points, respectively. In the Creighton game — a PBA environment Roby said was the favorite of his Husker career — Palmer opened things with three triples, sparking an offensive masterpiece.
Many expect Thursday’s game to feel like that Creighton game. Maybe not the same ferocity of that rivalry game, “but I could see this one challenging for that,” Roby said. “I know the fans are going to come out and be crazy like always.”
Since the Creighton game and the two games after in which Palmer seemingly couldn’t miss from long range, his shooting has come down to earth. In his last five, he’s shooting exactly 30 percent.
“I don’t like his balance,” Miles said of the shooting recently. “I thought he landed on one foot three or four times the other night and he’s got to stick his landing better. We’re going to work on that as we speak.”
The Spartans are ninth in the Big Ten in 3-point rate allowed. Say Palmer gets in the same rhythm as that Creighton game and cans a few early ones, what happens to the crowd? What happens to the confidence?
The other piece of the pie is what he does off the ball. Against Indiana, Palmer rebounded better than he had at any other point in his Nebraska career, grabbing nine boards to go with his seven assists.
“Our guards have to clean up,” Miles said. “It’s not just the obligation of the two big guys to rebound.”
That’s been a sticking point for a bit, too. Nebraska is one of the worst in the Big Ten when it comes to rebounding, but the Huskers are also one of the smallest units in the league, meaning the guards have to pull their weight.
Against Michigan State, that’s especially true. By percentage of available rebounds a team gets, Michigan State is the third-best rebounding squad in college basketball. Three guys average at least seven boards a game. Nebraska has nobody averaging seven.
“With a team like that where their four and five are really big and could both be five-men technically, we’re looking for a lot of help from our guards,” Roby said of the Spartans. Head coach Tom Izzo has 6-foot-7, 230-pound, senior Kenny Goins (9.4 boards) and 6-foot-9, 245-pound, junior Nick Ward (6.8 boards) on his front line.
If Palmer can give Nebraska anywhere close to what he did against Indiana, and Watson can rebound at a similar rate (he had five against the Hoosiers) that helps out Roby and Copeland in the paint.
“I know I can focus more on rebounding in my certain area instead of having to try to make an extra effort to the rebound out of my area,” Roby said. “I know my guard’s going to be able there cleaning up for me, I can just focus on keeping my man away from the ball instead of having to focus on rebounding all around and looking down the court and seeing them try to leak out or something like that.”
Nebraska’s length gives it the ability to rebound better than its 12th-place ranking in the league would represent.
“You’ve got to catch a body, you’ve got to put a body on those guys and fight back,” Miles said. “Too many times we almost shield ourselves, we stand in front of them and check out while they’re fighting us down and we don’t fight back. We’ve got to fight back.”
The Spartans have one of the best offensive ratings in basketball (118.8 points per 100 possessions, fifth) to pair with a top-50 defense. They play at one of the fastest paces in the league but are right around the average in terms of turnover percentage. Junior guard Cassius Winston leads the conference in assists (7.4 a game) while still finding his own offense (17.6 points a night, seventh in the Big Ten).
Despite losing two NBA lottery picks, Michigan State is still a very dangerous team. “I mean this in the most complimentary way, but they are like sharks,” Miles said. “If you put a little blood in the water, it’s over.” They’re a dangerous team.
The difference this time around? So is Nebraska.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.