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Huskers Head to Columbus Hoping Defense Can Crack the Buckeyes
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Huskers Head to Columbus Hoping Defense Can Crack the Buckeyes

January 21, 2018

In year one under Chris Holtmann, Ohio State is ahead of schedule. The Buckeyes are 17-4, a perfect 8-0 in conference play and a top-15 team according to BPI. Playing above their heads? Maybe, but Nebraska coach Tim Miles sees a team that is playing together and firing on all cylinders.

“It’s just remarkable to me,” Miles said Sunday as his team prepares to depart for Columbus. “The buy-in from the players is so good, you can just see it, they’re all in. … He’s a rock-solid, really good coach but to be able to come in and connect with those guys in such a quick amount of time is really impressive.”

The Buckeyes rank 28th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and 11th in defensive efficiency, per KenPom. Since conference play began, no Big Ten squad has shot better from the floor than the Buckeyes (51 percent) and only one rebounds better. They don’t turn it over at a high rate (under 10 a game in conference play), they don’t miss their free throws (74 percent) and they’re led by uber-efficient forward Keita Bates-Diop (60 percent true shooting, 29.3 PER).

“When you look at just their quality of play, they don’t beat themselves,” Miles said. “They’re strong across the board. Whether it be shooting the ball well, getting to the foul line, rebounding, and they’re excellent defensively, their defensive space is really good.”

For Nebraska to upset Ohio State on the road Monday night at 7 p.m. CT, the sense is they’ll need to do it with physicality and defense. Fortunately, that’s how they’ve done things for most of the season. The Huskers have held teams below 40 percent shooting in each of their last three outings and nine of 21 games overall. They’ve also held opponents below average in 16 of 21, including all eight conference games. 

“We know that when we hold a team under a point per possession, we win almost 85 percent of our games,” Miles said.

Against Michigan the Huskers also forced turnovers. Twelve to be exact, the third-highest mark of the Wolverines’ season. After, coach John Beilein said forward Isaiah Roby as a center causes a ton of issues for opposing teams because of his defensive versatility and what it opens up for the rest of his teammates. Nebraska switched everything and the rotations were always on time. They played with an energy that didn’t fade as the game wore on. 

“Anytime we can fly around like that and get steals and deflections and have that energy, that gives us the chance to beat anybody,” guard Anton Gill said. “That’s definitely something that we’re trying to keep going.”

So, Miles and company have approached this one with the mindset that a win will come through a rugged, grind-it-out style of play. The emphasis has been on matching the Buckeyes physicality, but also controlling the boards a little more, cutting the turnovers and making smarter decisions in transition. 

“We did a lot of tough guard drills and boxing out and things like that,” Gill said. “There wasn’t a lot of fouls called in practice so it’s something we have to make a conscious effort of going in there and knowing it’s not going to be easy.”

Bates-Diop figures to make things as difficult as possible. Miles was complimentary of forward Jas’Sean Tate (12.4 points a night) and guard C.J. Jackson (13.1 a night) as well as freshman center Kaleb Wesson, but it was Bates-Diop who Miles feels like is playing “a level above.”

“He looks like an NBA player,” Miles said. “I remember that kid when he was 15 and he just looks like his dad now, he looks like a different being.”

This will be the third major Big Ten star the Huskers have faced in the last four games. They limited Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ to just four points in the first half on Jan. 9, then stymied Michigan big Moritz Wagner to only two points in 32 minutes on Friday. They’ll try and defend Bates-Diop, with his near 20/10 nightly line, the same.

“We’ve just gotta all attack him just like anybody else,” Gill said. “Make his touches hard and deny him a little bit, just try to make it rough for him. Guys like that you can’t completely take out of the game because he’s so talented, but you can make him work and try to wear him out so he’s not as effective at the end of the game.”

As for that momentum-boosting beatdown over the Wolverines, Gill said the team has tried not to get too high. They want to enter Columbus Monday night with a “clean slate.”

“It was a good win but we watched the tape, we weren’t perfect, there’s things we still have to fix,” he said. “We’re approaching it like any other game. Apply the game plan, come in fresh and get ready to compete and see what happens.”

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