Photo Credit: John Peterson

Huskers Focused on Little Things with No. 7 Purdue Up Next

January 13, 2022

With 3:57 to play on Tuesday, Nebraska found itself in a 65-all tie with No. 25 Illinois. Less than 60 seconds later, the Huskers found themselves down by seven as the Illini pulled away for an 81-71 win.

Illinois super senior Trent Frazier stepped up and closed the game out while the Huskers (6-11, 0-6 Big Ten) failed to make plays at both ends of the court.

“Trent Frazier, fifth-year guy, had the ball in his hands a lot and obviously made play after play,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Thursday. “We, unfortunately, did not, especially on the defensive end; that’s where I was really disappointed in the mistakes that were made on that end. He hit a tough step-back shot, but we were playing the pick-and-roll really well all night and they get behind us on a roll. First possession when it’s tied, we get a stop but we couldn’t get the rebound. Those are those plays you have to make if you want to beat a team the caliber of Illinois … You’ve got to do all those little things to get over the hump and to win games.”

Perhaps Trey McGowens can make a difference in that little things category. The veteran guard announced on Wednesday via social media that he had been cleared to return to the court after recovering from his broken foot.

“Trey’s excited to get back out there,” Hoiberg said. “We’re still undetermined if it’s going to be tomorrow. He had his first opportunity to get out on the floor in a team setting and obviously he’s got a ways to go with a lot of things, with timing, with conditioning, with still seeing if the foot is ready to go. He had two good workouts yesterday and today, got up and down quite a bit today and he was able to work through all of it. So we’ll see how he’s feeling tomorrow. He did have another x-ray this morning and it looked good, kind of as we expected.

“Now it’s about seeing how his foot responded to two pretty heavy workload days and see if we can get him back on the floor. It won’t be long if we do. It’ll be a very short stint and we’ll work him back into shape as we go with this, which is a hard thing to do. But he’s going to have nerves, he’s going to have jitters, he’s going to have a lot of things that he’s got to work his way through and probably the most of which is timing. You can do all the work you want on the treadmill, in the weight room and the pool, but nothing can compare and you just can’t simulate that game-type action. But it’s good to have him back out there on the floor. Just leadership toughness, all the things that Trey provides for us.”

McGowens has played just three games this season as he broke his foot in the first half of Nebraska’s game against Creighton on Nov. 16. McGowens has been a double-digit scorer throughout his career, but it’s the defensive side of the ball where the Huskers have most felt his absence this season and his return — whenever he’s able to get back close to full strength — could give the team a big boost on that end.

“He does so many little things for this team and obviously, first and foremost is toughness on the perimeter, especially on the defensive end,” Hoiberg said. “You’ve seen times players that have gone off and you just don’t have that defensive stopper out there of Trey’s quality, just that’s what he’s done his entire career, leading the ACC in steals. He did a really good job for us last year as far as getting in gaps, getting hands, activity, and just playing with that level of toughness that you have to have in this league to be able to compete.”

While McGowens nears his return, the Huskers have lost senior Trevor Lakes indefinitely. Hoiberg said his surgically repaired shoulder has popped out of its socket multiple times during practices and games this season and that it’s really been bothering Lakes recently. Nebraska is shutting him down to focus on healing the shoulder fully.

With or without McGowens, the Huskers are facing arguably their toughest challenge of the season on Friday as they head to West Lafayette to take on No. 7 Purdue (13-2, 2-2 Big Ten). The Boilermakers are No. 1 in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency at 124.0 and 67th in defense (98.0). Like Illinois, Matt Painter surrounds a dominant post presence with one of the best 3-point shooting groups in the country (third at 40.8%).

“With Trevion Williams, with Zach Edey, you’ve just got two of the better bigs that just sub in and out for each other and both pose incredible challenges on the block,” Hoiberg said. “Very different players in their style, but if you don’t battle them and you don’t get them off their position and their spot, they’re just going to turn around and lay it in or dunk it on you. And they’ve got great players around it. Matt’s always run great offense and put his players in a really good position. They’re the number one offense in the country right now and it’s because of those two bigs inside and then the way they shoot it. So it is similar a little bit to Illinois, you’ve got a big-time post presence and then you’ve got four guys that are able to knock down shots around them.”

Edey, a 7-foot-4, 295-pound sophomore, is averaging 14.9 points and converting 71% of his shots from the field. Williams, a 6-foot-10, 255-pound senior, isn’t far behind at 13.5 points per game on 60.9% shooting and 3.0 assists per game. The Boilermakers are in the 97th percentile nationally in post-up efficiency according to Synergy, scoring 1.068 points per possession. Purdue uses the interior threat to generate plenty of good looks on the perimeter as well as the Boilermakers are in the 99th percentile in spot-up scoring at 1.118 points per possession.

The Huskers got plenty of practice defending a dominant post scorer with shooters around him on Tuesday with Kofi Cockburn and Illinois, and Hoiberg is hoping his team can carry over what they did well in that game to Friday’s contest.

“The biggest thing, I thought we did a really good job on Kofi,” Hoiberg said. “I give Derrick [Walker] and Eduardo [Andre] a lot of credit. We asked them to do a lot, to go out and battle those guys one-on-one, and they did a really good job … I thought we did a good job limiting the 3s until the last stretch and that’s where they hit a couple of those key ones to stretch the lead there at the end of the game. But we did a much better job battling on the inside and taking away — Illinois makes 10 3s a game, they’re one of the best in the country. I think we limited them to seven and three of those came there at the end of the game. So for the majority, we did a really good job, but again, you look at that very important time of the game where you’ve got to be on point and that’s where we gave them a couple.”

One big difference between Illinois and Purdue, though, is the presence of a lottery pick in the Boilermakers’ backcourt. Sophomore Jaden Ivey (6-foot-4, 195 pounds) is leading the team at 16.2 points per game on 50% shooting including 43.8% from deep.

“What challenges doesn’t he he provide to you?”Hoiberg said. “First of all, he’s a one-man fast break and we have to get back, we can’t stab at the ball in transition. He’s as fast as any player in the country end line to end line, and that’s where it starts. If he gets the rebound, if he gets an outlet, he is off, shot out of a cannon coming down the floor. And then you have to do your work early on their bigs and you have to locate their shooters, which they have a lot of. But Ivey, the progression he’s made — he was obviously a phenomenal player last year and he’s just taken it to a whole different level this year. Just athleticism, shooting 44% from the 3-point line, he’s a really good all-around player and he’s got a heck of a future in front of him.”

Tipoff on Friday is set for 5:30 p.m. CT on FS1 with Brandon Gaudin and Nick Bahe on the call.

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