Nebraska is back in action on Wednesday night after a week off, only this time the Huskers are taking the show on the road for the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. The Huskers will travel to Georgia Tech (3-2) for the first of two road games this week.
“It’s a big test,” senior guard Haanif Cheatham said. “They’ve got good height, they’ve got shot-blockers, they’ve got good guards. It’s going to be our first real road game test. We’ve got Wednesday and then we’ve got Saturday, so we’ve got two tough road games coming up back-to-back. So I think once we get this one out of the way on Wednesday it will prepare us for Saturday.”
The Huskers (4-3) returned from the Cayman Islands on Friday after finishing third in the eight-team event with a 2-1 record and have had the last few days to put in some work on the practice court.
“It’s been good,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “We obviously have a very tough stretch of games ahead of us starting with [Wednesday] night, three consecutive road games. You have to have a different mentality when you go on the road. When you’re at home, especially with the crowd that we have, one of the best in the nation, they’re able to get you through the tough times. When you go out on the road, we’re all we’ve got, those 16 guys that we have in the locker room and the coaching staff. We have to find a way to go out there and play together, play through the tough times and do it as a unit. It’s been a big focus, the communication.”
The other big focus? Rebounding. The Huskers are 149th in the country in rebounding margin and Nebraska has given up 11 or more offensive rebounds in every game this season.
“Obviously rebounding is something that we’ve been focusing on a lot,” Hoiberg said. “It’s about going out there and obviously putting a body on players. We’re very inconsistent with that right now and we can’t be with our lack of size. We found a way to win four of five while giving up 25, 15, 15 and 17 offensive rebounds in the last four. If we don’t fix that, it’s going to start getting ugly here real quick. We’ve got to find a way to compete on the glass better because when we get it off we’re pretty darn effective. I think our pace is 19th in the country right now and when we can secure the rebound, we’re a very effective offensive team. When we don’t and you're taking the ball out of the net and giving teams two and three opportunities, you’re fighting uphill.
“Rebounding is something that obviously we have to continue to stress, but when we do get the ball off the glass, we’re as good as anybody. I think we’re giving up 37% of opponents’ missed shots. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to say that’s way too many. But we’ve got to fix it and we’ve got to find a way to compete better, especially in that stat.”
The inconsistent effort on the glass has been a team-wide thing, and at this point it has as much or more to do with things Nebraska can control as it does with the team’s lack of size. According to Cheatham, Hoiberg is having the defense run when they fail to secure rebounds as an extra incentive to take care of business.
“It’s just live rebounding drills,” Hoiberg said. “Believe it or not, we do it. It’s about carrying that over. The corner crash is really hurting us. Everyday we do corner crash rebounding drills, going and finding and hitting the body. Our bigs, we’re undersized. Kevin Cross, we’re asking a lot of him. We’ve got a 17-year-old in Yvan [Ouedraogo] that’s got his hands full down there pretty much every night. Kevin’s playing out of position; he’s 6’6” and we’re asking him especially when you go out there tomorrow against Banks, you’re playing against the No. 1 shot-blocker in the country and a great offensive rebounder. Kevin’s job is to hopefully lock him up and then our guards can come back in and get the rebound over the top.
“It’s a concerted effort; you’ve got to do it 40 minutes, not just when it’s convenient and when you feel good, when you’re fresh. You’ve got to do it, more importantly, when you’re tired. When you look at the stretch of games we had in the Caymans when we rebounded the ball, we were pretty darn good.”
The Banks Hoiberg referred to is James Banks III, a 6-foot-10, 250-pound senior who is averaging 13.4 points, 9.6 rebounds and a nation-leading 5.2 blocks. He’s coming off a 12-point, 10-rebound, eight-block performance against Bethune-Cookman.
The Huskers love to get to the rim as much or more as they like firing up 3-pointers, but Hoiberg said his players will have to be aware of where Banks is any time they attack the basket.
“We’ve talked about driving into the paint to make a play,” Hoiberg said. “I told them I’d rather throw it into the 10th row than to allow him to block our shot because now at least we can get our defense set. We talked to our guys, if you drive in there and try to shoot over him it’s a turnover and it’s going to lead to a fast break opportunity for them. He does a great job of keeping the ball in play when he blocks shots. You’re not getting it over him, you’re not getting it over the top. Offensive rebounds, you’ve got to be ready if you don’t have a quick able to score it to kick it out to try to get an open 3 out of it. That’s one thing I’ve been really pleased with—we’re shooting I think almost 45% from the 3-point line the last four games and lot of it is making the extra pass and guys stepping up with confidence. Going there, we just can’t challenge him at the rim. He’s too good at doing that, he’s number one in the nation in blocking shots, so we have to be selective when we take it to the rim.”
Hoiberg said Georgia Tech coach Josh Pastner mixes it up defensively, using a match-up zone and a 1-3-1 in addition to man-to-man defense. Hoiberg also said it will be important for the Huskers to understand the scouting report and recognize who they need to chase off the 3-point line compared to who would rather drive than shoot. The Huskers gave up a lot of open 3s to George Mason in the Cayman Islands Classic semifinals and the Patriots capitalized, shooting 11-of-25. One player, Jamal Hartwell II, had five of those triples by himself.
The guy Nebraska will have to be aware of at all times on Wednesday is Michael Devoe, a 6-foot-5, 193-pound sophomore guard who is leading the Yellow Jackets with 23.4 points per game. He’s connected on 13 of his 21 3-point attempt this season (61.9% on 4.2 3s per game). The rest of the team is a combined 12-of-63 (19%).
Moses Wright, a 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior forward is the only other Yellow Jacket averaging better than 7.0 points per game as he’s chipping in 10 points per game on 60% shooting and 7.0 rebounds per game.
Junior point guard Jose Alvarado, the team’s leading returning scorer, has been limited to just two games this season because of a high ankle sprain and will not play against Nebraska on Wednesday.
Tipoff in Atlanta is set for 6:15 p.m. CT on ESPNU with Mika Monaco and Malcolm Huckaby 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.