Nebraska returned from its 10-day layoff with one of its stronger efforts of the season, trading blows with a top-15 opponent in Ohio State. The Huskers took a five-point lead on an emphatic slam from Lat Mayen with 36 seconds remaining.
The Huskers couldn’t finish the job, however, and let another confidence-boosting win slip through their fingers. Now they have to turn around and take on another top-15 opponent on the road after two days of prep.
“We had a good film session with them about the things that we need to correct to win those games and that’s the bottom line, we have to win those,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We’ve got to find a way, especially those home games when you have a lead under a minute, a five-point lead; you’ve got to find a way to win those, and it’s disappointing that we couldn’t close it at the end … It’s three times now that we’ve had leads under a minute and we just have not found a way to close it, and that’s a huge difference right now of being 6-8 and having three more wins under our belt. So, again, you’ve just got to find a way to win it. That’s that’s the bottom line.”
The Ohio State game showed marked improvement rom the Huskers’ previous two games against high-major opponents, Michigan and Auburn. The Huskers got off to a slow start and fell behind multiple times in the first half, but they stuck with it and got back in the game against one of the best teams they’ve played this season.
“I definitely feel like we’re making steps in the right direction,” Bryce McGowens said. “We’ve been able to stay together; that’s what I loved. Everybody was engaged in the other night’s game. So we love to see that we just are able to count on each other and believe in and trust in each other.”
The Huskers will need to show the same type of resolve on Wednesday as they head to East Lansing to take on No. 10 Michigan State (12-2, 2-03 Big Ten). The Spartans are top-20 nationally in 3-point percentage at 38.9% and they also have a strong interior presence with 7-foot senior Marcus Bingham (11.0 points and 7.9 rebounds per game). Michigan State is 22nd nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom.
“They’re shooting, obviously, a very high percentage from behind the line and they’ve got multiple shooters right now that are over 40%,” Hoiberg said. “It’s it’s a really complete team, and when Tom Izzo said this is one of the best transition teams he’s ever had, that’s saying something because they’ve had really fast teams over the years, teams that have won championships. They do a good job keeping you balanced by playing inside through multiple guys, but it starts and ends with Michigan State every time in transition. If you don’t get back, you may as well stay on the bus. This is a team that that can really expose you if you’re not 100% committed to getting back in transition.
“And then rebounding is the other thing they’ve always hung their hat on. We have to finish possessions with a cut out. But they score a lot of points in transition and they score a lot of points on second chance.”
The Spartans are top-50 nationally in offensive rebound percentage according to KenPom, grabbing just over a third of their misses, and they’re scoring 1.247 points per possession on put-backs according to Synergy. Transition is Michigan State’s second-most common play type as well at 21.5% of their possessions, according to Synergy.
Senior wing Gabe Brown has emerged as the team’s go-to player, nearly doubling his scoring average from a season ago. The 6-foot-8 sharpshooter is leading the way at 14.6 points per game and is shooting 39.8% from deep on 6.3 attempts per game.
“They’ve always had unbelievable talent,” Hoiberg said. “I’ve been watching Gabe Brown, having a kid that’s played that program for four years, continue to develop. I loved the kid as a freshman and there’s just such a big learning curve as we’ve seen all across the board with some very talented freshmen in this league. But Gabe Brown — athleticism, size, high release shooting point, the kid has absolutely become a warrior and the alpha dog on that team and he’s really embraced it.”
Brown is the team’s top threat in the open court as well and is the guy that drives the Spartans’ transition offense. He’s scoring 1.143 points per possession and is getting a fast break opportunity on 18.8% of his possessions, according to Synergy. He’s shooting over 50% from the floor in transition.
“Everything with Gabe Brown starts in transition, that that’s where he gets going with the transition 3s and with with high level finishes with athleticism over the rim in transition,” Hoiberg said. “So that’s where it starts, and that has nothing to do with rotations. That’s a will and an effort thing, to get back and try to slow him down where he doesn’t hit two or three 3s and get two or three layups at the rim and if you can take those away, it gives you a pretty good chance of guarding if you can get into it in the half court.”
The Huskers have been solid defensively in transition overall this season, allowing just 0.9 points per possession, but they’ve had costly breakdowns in important moments and at times their slow recovery has led to bad match-ups that put the Huskers in rotation and led to buckets later in the possession.
“Really, it’s just just being able to play hard,” McGowens said. “At the end of the day, you’ve got to sprint back on defense an that has to do with playing hard. But these past two days, everybody’s been dialed in, and we’ve been doing pretty good … [Communication] definitely has a major role, being able to sprint back, talk, get matchups right. You’re not going to guard the same player every play in transition, so just being able to talk, be physical and win the battle.”
Defensively, the Spartans are 21st nationally in adjusted efficiency led by one of the best shot-blockers in the Big Ten in Bingham (2.8 per game). McGowens stressed the importance of playing off two feet and making good decisions int he paint when going against a team with strong rim protection.
Tipoff on Wednesday is set for 6 p.m. on Big Ten Network with Brandon Gaudin and Robbie Hummel 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.