Fred Hoiberg was not happy with his team’s effort in Wednesday’s blowout loss at Ohio State. So the Huskers made up for it on Thursday as Hoiberg put the team through a tough, physical practice.
“I told them ‘If we’re not going to bring it in the game, we’re going to get it out of you in practice,’” Hoiberg said. “They came in and they competed.”
Hoiberg chose to use Friday as more of a mental day with a crisp walk-through as the Huskers get ready to take on Michigan State Saturday night in a showdown of two 0-3 Big Ten teams.
The Huskers have had their offensive struggles all season long, including in the first two Big Ten losses against Wisconsin and Michigan. Wednesday’s loss took that to a whole new level, but that wasn’t the part that most disappointed Hoiberg.
“The thing that really bothered me about last game is we just quit defending,” Hoiberg said. “We quit going out there and trying to match their physicality, and that’s where the thing just blew open. We had a stretch, it was a 12-point game — we missed a layup, missed the put-back, missed the front end of a one-and-one and missed a wide open, one of those were you can eat a sandwich and then shoot it, 3, and now all of a sudden it could have been five. We had three good stops in a row. And then ultimately, after not seeing that thing go through that hoop, human nature is you don’t have the same energy defensively.
“We have to keep our defensive energy and that’s kept us in games where we haven’t shot well. It kept us in the Michigan game, it kept us in the Wisconsin game for the most part, it kept us in it for a big portion of the Creighton game. Last game was the first time I really thought the energy was not where it needed to be to be able too compete in a Big Ten game against a ranked team. That’s what we’re going to face all year. This group has been pretty resilient for the most part on that end of the floor. We’ve just got to find a way to manufacture some offense and make some shots.”
Hoiberg has talked with his staff about changing some of the things they do on offense structurally, but at the same time he doesn’t want to fully abandon the identity he wants his team to have. He feels they’re getting some good shots. But Nebraska is shooting 30.4% from 3 including 25% in their first three conference games. The Huskers also have just 21 assists on 60 field goals and have turned the ball over 32 times in those Big Ten games.
“You look at our numbers, obviously we’re not shooting the ball very well — we’re not shooting it well at all right now — and assist-to-turnover for the year is basically one-to-one, and that’s just not good enough,” Hoiberg said. “That’s not going to win you many games when you’re shooting the ball like we are and turning the ball over like we are with low assist totals. We’ve talked about putting in a whole new set, a simple set that has more structure to it and more control on who we get the ball to.
“That all being said, we had 19 open 3s, what we consider open shots form the 3-point line in the last game and we made four of them. We had seven that we consider semi-contested, meaning a late contest, and a couple of the guys we had shooting them, we like those guys shooting the ball. To me, this game is so much about confidence. When you have it, you’re on top of the world. When you don’t, that rim looks like a little thimble up there and that’s what it looks like to a lot of our guys right now.”
The Huskers’ opponent on Saturday might have some similar confidence problems seeing as the Spartans have lost three straight after making it through the nonconference schedule unscathed. The Spartans lost to Northwestern by 14, Wisconsin by nine and Minnesota by 25.
“They’re coming off a very similar performance to what we are with the game at Minnesota,” Hoiberg said. “I know one thing, with having a week to prepare, I can promise you what they have been going through probably isn’t real easy and isn’t a lot of fun. I know looking at Izzo’s past, they lost three in a row last year at one point and then they got it right and they were one of the best teams in the country at the end of the year.”
The Spartans lost their two two players from last year’s 22-9 team in point guard Cassius Winston, the orchestrator of their offense, and center Xavier Tillman, the backbone of their defense. Tom Izzo added talented Marquette transfer Joey Hauser after a redshirt year, but the Spartans are still figuring out offensive roles and defensive responsibilities without the their leaders.
“You get rid of arguably the best point guard in the country last year in Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman who was the heart and soul of that team and a big part of their Final Four run, both those guys the year before, and now you’re trying to plug in pieces and players without much of a summer, without much of a fall and then you lose five nonconference games, so they’re working some of their stuff out on the fly like we are and that’s just the reality when you have as many new faces without a lot of the early-season opportunities that you would normally get to work out the kinks,” Hoiberg said.
Hauser is leading the Spartans in scoring (13.1 per game) and rebounding (8.1 per game) while shooting 51.3% from the field, 38.5% from 3 and 75.8% from the free-throw line. Doit-all wing Aaron Henry is stuffing the stat sheet with 11.9 points, 5.3 rebounds, 4.4 assists 1.7 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, but he shooting just 39% from the field including 17.4% from deep. Sophomore Rocket Watts has tried to step into the point guard role with Winston’s departure, but he’s more of a natural two-guard and has struggled with his efficiency this season, scoring 9.9 points per game while shooting 35.4% from the field and 27.8% from 3.
The Spartans are giving up 81.7 points per game against Big Ten competition and 75.4% overall, and they’ve shot just 38.6% inside the arc the last three games.
“Michigan State is a physical basketball team,” Hoiberg said. “They’ve got skill all over the floor with their perimeter guys and then they can take you inside as well, and that’s been the makeup of Tom Izzo’s teams going back 25 years is they are tough, hard-nosed, fast, rebounding. Those are going to be big parts of our game plan. We have to get back in transition and we have to battle them on the glass. If we do those two things, we will hopefully have a chance.”
Tipoff on Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 7 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with Larry Punteney and Shon Morris 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.