Nebraska picked up just one win in its first 15 Big Ten games this season, but the Huskers are two for their last two, knocking off Minnesota and Rutgers in the last week to close out their home schedule.
Despite playing 12 games in 24 days and losing their leading scorer, the Huskers are playing their best basketball of the season.
“I think the biggest thing our guys have continued to do is they’ve stayed completely locked in with everything that we’re trying to teach and through all the adversity we’re trying to handle … I could not be more proud of how they’ have continued to battle through everything,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “Even the Illinois game, which I thought we kind of gave in to the fatigue for the first time, then you bounce back and you win two straight after that. It just shows everything you need to know about our group.
“They’re continuing to come in here and work when the easy thing would be to shut down. They continue to go out and give our team a chance to win games. We’ve had so many games where we’ve been close, under 10, under eight, we’ve been right there and just couldn’t get over the hump. Then we win a couple in a row and it’s amazing what that does for the confidence, for the spirit of the group, to come in every day and know that all that hard work that they’re putting in is paying off.”
Hoiberg inserted Kobe Webster and Thorir Thorbjarnarson into the starting lineup for the senior night game and the Huskers won, so Hoiberg stuck with that group against Rutgers on Monday. Nebraska shot better than 50% from the field and dished out 19 assists in both games. What’s clicked with that group?
“Everybody’s locked in on defense, that’s one,” Trey McGowens said. “Thor, Kobe, Lat [Mayen], their energy is contagious, especially how they cut, move without the ball. When they move without the ball, somebody else sees it. They move without the ball and it opens up so many driving lanes and it opens up shots.”
The Huskers hit the road to close out the regular season, starting with a stop in Iowa City on Thursday to face the fifth-ranked Hawkeyes. Big Ten win No. 4 won’t come easily; Hoiberg said the Huskers could play well and still get beat by 20.
“Iowa’s that good and they’re playing that well right now,” Hoiberg said. “That game against Ohio State was as good a performance as I’ve seen all year in any league. They’re just playing incredible basketball right now. We just have to continue to play hard and compete and go out and try to do the little things. The thing I loved about last game as much as anything else against that very physical, rugged, tough Rutgers team is we held them to six offensive rebounds, and that’s been an issue.
“The turnovers weren’t as unforced as they had been against a team that really pressures you. We took big steps in those areas and we had 19 assists with about nine minutes left in the game. All those things that we’re stressing and working on, when it pays off and you win the game by that type of margin, it just shows that your guys continue to lock in and I’m as proud of that as anything with our group.”
Iowa is 18-7 this season and 12-6 in conference play. The Hawkeyes are leading the Big Ten at nearly 80 points per game in league contests and are second nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to KenPom, behind only undefeated Gonzaga.
Iowa is one of just two conference opponents Nebraska beat last season as the home team won both meetings. The Hawkeyes shot 4-of-33 from 3 in the game at Pinnacle Bank Arena while five Huskers scored in double figures led by Thorbjarnarson with 17.
“It’s a scary, scary team, especially the way they’re playing right now and you look at their shooting percentages over the last five games,” Hoiberg said. “Last year we played off a couple guys, we had short closeouts to a couple guys, and when we won the game at Nebraska, a lot of it was they missed shots that they normally make and they made those shots in Iowa City and they pounded us. It’s one of those things, when you’ve got the best post presence in the game and it’s not even close, how do you guard them and do you play the numbers?”
That post presence is Luka Garza, the 6-foot-11 senior center who is averaging 24.3 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting 55.1% from the field and 45.5% from 3.
“We have to get back in transition,” Hoiberg said. “That’s where it starts with this Iowa team. If Garza’s in front of the ball, they’re going to do everything to get it to them. If he’s trailing, he’s going to drag where he can pop and he’s shooting over 50% in the last five.”
Garza is coming off a 24-point, 11-rebound double-double in a 73-57 win at Ohio State. The Hawkeyes surround him with plenty of shooters as Joe Wieskamp, CJ Fredrick, Jordan Bohannon and Keegan Murray all shoot 38% or better from deep.
“You look at Fredrick who is in my mind one of the more underrated players in the country,” Hoiberg said. “Wieskamp’s having an incredible, incredible year. [Connor] McCaffery’s knocking down shots and he’s just so rock solid out there. All across the board, he can hurt you in so many ways. I’ve been so impressed with Murray, the freshman that comes off the bench, and what he can do to you and how athletic. He just makes so many mature plays. He’s a lot better player than his dad was, who I played against. They hurt you in so many ways because there’s so many weapons on the floor at any time.”
McGowens compared Iowa to full-strength Illinois with the way the Illini have 7-footer Kofi Cockburn inside and talented guards like Ayo Dosunmu, Trent Frazier and Adam Miller on the perimeter spacing the floor.
Hoiberg said the Huskers took Monday off, so they’re heading into the game on another one-day prep. Hoiberg said he’d like to have a few days to tinker with some things, but they’re used to a short prep schedule at this point and they did go over a few defensive coverages on Tuesday.
Tipoff on Big Ten Network is set for 8 p.m. with Kevin Kugler and Jess Settles 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.