Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Hoiberg Stressing Ball Security as Huskers Prep for Stingy Rutgers Defense

February 13, 2023

Nebraska pulled off its biggest comeback since February of 2013 on Saturday, rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat Wisconsin in overtime.

The man that keyed the comeback, back-up center Blaise Keita, played more minutes after halftime than he had in his previous five appearances combined following the high-ankle sprain he suffered against Queens on Dec. 20.

Keita didn’t play in the first half against Wisconsin, but after Derrick Walker turned the ball over on each of Nebraska’s first two possessions of the second half, Hoiberg called Keita’s number 49 seconds in… and he spent less than two minutes on the bench the rest of the game.

Keita finished with 11 rebounds, two points and several individual stops in 23 minutes, and Nebraska outscored Wisconsin by 20 points with him on the floor. He even shared the court with Walker for long stretches of the half.

“It allowed us to play, really, one-on-one in the post,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said of Keita’s impact. “Derrick, we really have to do a good job of trying to protect him early in games and we missed a couple of very basic rotations early in that game. This is something going back to June that we put in with this defense is rotating out of the double team and we just did not do a very good job in the first half.

“In the second half, what Blaise gives us is the opportunity to play one-on-one with with the post-up and that kept us closer to their shooters and did a much better job. I think the last 20 minutes of the game we held them to 17 points. Blaise just did everything for us. He took a big charge late in the game, he had great hand activity on the post with his pressure and he really rebounded the ball at a high rate. It was great to see him out there, he and Derrick.”

Hoiberg said Keita’s ankle was a bit sore after his first real extended minutes since the injury, but he was a full participant in Monday’s practice. Keith’s interior defense could come in handy again on Tuesday as Nebraska visits Rutgers, led by 6-foot-11, 240-pound center Cliff Omoruyi (13.5 points, 9.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game).

With the quick turnaround, Hoiberg said Sunday was a day of physical recovery and mental preparation for the Huskers (12-14, 5-10 Big Ten), but on Monday they got back to work to prepare for the quick turnaround.

“Today we got up and down and went live and tried to make it as physical as possible,” Hoiberg said. “Our scout team did a really good job of being physical and getting active, getting up underneath us which we’re going to see tomorrow. But it’s a very difficult thing to simulate. It’s just all about, right now with this time of the year with the schedule the way it’s been, a lot of it’s mental preparation and mental toughness.”

Rutgers (16-9, 8-6 Big Ten) has lost back-to-back games and four of its last seven after a 5-2 start to league play and Coach Steve Pikiell has recently lost one of his starters for the season in junior wing Mawot Mag, but Hoiberg still sees a dangerous opponent.

“It doesn’t change anything,” Hoiberg said. “You know how hard it is to win on the road in this league and I think you can just point to it as it’s as simple as that. We know they’re going to have urgency and we have to withstand the first run. The first five minutes are going to be very important tomorrow night in the game because I know they’re going to come out and play with great effort. They always do, that’s what Pikiell does with his team. So it’s just a great opportunity for us. We’ve got to go out there and we’ve got nothing to lose, so just go out and play free and hopefully play well for 40.”

Rutgers boasts the second-best defense in the country according to KenPom. The Scarlet Knights ore sixth nationally in effective field goal percentage allowed at 44.3% (44.7% on2s, 13th; 29.1% on 3s, 14th) and 22nd in opponent turnover rate (22.7%).

“They’re really good and the thing that is most impressive about Rutgers’ defense is their activity and their ability to get deflections,” Hoiberg said. “It’s going to be very important, we can’t just drive into a pile and expect to be able to complete passes. We have to come in under control, one less dribble and make a simple play. They’ve got great length across the board and they make it very difficult on you to score. So it’s going to be an important game to take care of it.

“We have to take care of it early, we can’t let them get out in transition and get easy baskets with careless turnovers and we really have to value the ball. Our first half against Wisconsin, it can’t happen like that. If we drive in there and expect to be able to make plays in traffic, it’s going to be an ugly game and it’s going to get ugly early. So we just have to take great care of the ball and and hopefully get good shots up on the board every possession.”

The Huskers turned the ball over 15 times against the Badgers after cleaning things up in their prior two games (seven against Penn State, eight at Michigan). Penn State is fifth in steal percentage, meaning a lot of the turnovers the Scarlet Knights force are live-ball ones.

Rutgers returned two starters in 6-foot-7 wings in Caleb McConnell (9.6 points, 5.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 2.5 steals per game) and Paul Mulcahy (9.1 points, 4.8 assists and 1.7 steals per game), but it’s been Loyola (Maryland) transfer guard Cam Spencer who has replaced a lot of the firepower Rutgers lost with the departures of Ron Harper Jr. and Geo Baker.

The 6-foot-4 senior is averaging 12.4 points, 3.4 assists and 2.4 steals while shooting 41.5% on nearly five 3-point attempts per game.

“He’s been one of the top transfers in our league just with his ability to make shots,” Hoiberg said. “The thing that he’s really been impressive with is his ability to have deflections on the defensive end; he’s number one in the league in steal rate and McConnell is number two. He just he’s so good and active with his hands. But his ability to make just a high-level degree of difficulty shots that he’s making: transition, pump fake, off the dribble — he’s very good off the dribble from the 3-point line as well — and he’s crafty at the basket.

“So he’s doing a really good job and they’ve got guys that really create mismatches. Mulcahy, obviously McConnell with their positional size put you in a difficult spot. Spencer plays really well off those guys and we’re going to have to find him. We can’t let him get get free, especially in transition.”

Rutgers is 14-2 at the arena formerly known as the RAC this season and is 46-6 at home in in 2019-20, 2021-22 and 2022-23 (the Scarlet Knights went 10-4 during 2020-21 without fans in attendance). According to KenPom, Rutgers has the eight-best home court advantage in Division I.

“This is a very difficult place to play, we know that,” Hoiberg said. “With the schedule the way it’s been, I think this is our third time on the east coast in in the last couple of weeks. So we’ve just got to find a way to go out there. I’m glad it’s a late game, and we’re going to get back late but we’ve got a little time to catch our breath after this one where it’s been a lot of games in a short amount of time. So we’ve got to find a way to leave it all out there to hopefully give ourselves a chance.”

Tipoff on Tuesday is set for 7 p.m. CT on the Big Ten Network with Jason Horowitz and Brian Butch on the call.

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