After coming up a few points short against Purdue on Saturday, Nebraska will get another crack at a conference contender on Thursday as the Huskers travel to Ann Arbor to take on No. 9 Michigan.
Michigan is coming off a tough loss of its own as Michigan State topped the Wolverines 77-70 to take sole possession of first place in the Big Ten. Michigan is a game back of the Spartans and half a game behind second-place Purdue. Thursday will be senior night for the Wolverines.
“They’re playing for a conference championship; they can’t afford to lose,” Coach Tim Miles said. “But we should be able to play loose and free because we’ve got nothing to lose. They’ve got a lot more at stake than we do so let’s just go and let it go, baby. Let’s play hard.”
Michigan is 24-4 overall (13-4 in league play) and boasts one of the best defenses in the country. The Wolverines have wins over Villanova, Purdue, Wisconsin and Maryland among others and have been ranked inside the top-10 nationally since the second week of the season.
“They are excellent defensively, and I think that starts when you’ve got a 7-1 guy [Jon Teske] protecting the rim, but also a point guard as tough and ferocious as Zavier Simpson,” Miles said. “And then you look, their athleticism on the wing with [Jordan] Poole and [Charles] Matthews and that’s just the defensive part. Then you put their offensive prowess and system — Coach [John] Beilein can system-whip you. He’s taken 40 years to put together a system that he’s crafted and has never been an assistant coach and has really done a masterful job. That’s why they’ve played for two national championships in my time in this league.”
Defensively, the Wolverines are allowing just 60.9 points per game in Big Ten play (first in the league) and first in limiting 3-point attempts while allowing just 29.9 percent from deep, second in the Big Ten. Offensively, they’re second in the conference in 2-point field goal percentage at 50.6 and are first in limiting turnovers.
Freshman forward Ignas Brazdeikis is leading the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game while sophomore guard Jordan Poole isn’t far behind at 13.2 per game. Simpson, Matthews and Teske are in the conversation for best defenders at their position in the country. Even so, Miles has confidence in his own players to match up and put up a good fight.
“I think getting to [Ignas] Brazdeikis is really important, I think [Isaiah] Roby on him is an important match-up andI like that, I think Isaiah can rise to the occasion; that’s really important,” Miles said. “Glynn [Watson Jr.] and Zavier I think was a good match-up last year and [James [Palmer] had some success against Charles Matthews. I’m not saying those are favorable match-ups, but I think that they’re similar.”
Miles said the key to attacking Michigan’s defense is to be aggressive and to be ready for what the Wolverines are going to throw at them.
“We have to be aggressive,” Miles said. “Last year I thought they did a good job of mixing up their screen-and-roll coverages and I thought we got frustrated with that — in the Big Ten Tournament, obviously. We gave them a couple different looks, we broke down what we think they’ll do and try to teach it better, and hopefully we’re ready for it.”
Against the Boilermakers, Nebraska got 10 points off its bench including a career-high-tying six points from freshman guard Amir Harris, and Miles is hoping to see a similar performance on Thursday.
“I thought our bench was as good as they’ve been offensively and defensively against Purdue,” Miles said. “We certainly need that and even more. As we go through this, I think every guy has just got to be ready to step up and rise to his opportunity. For no good reason, Thorir [Thorbjarnarson] didn’t get in the game but I met with him like ‘You’ve got to get ready,’ and I think he will be ready because you never know who’s going to step up and be able to make some plays for you. But if Amir can continue to trend up, I think that’s a good sign for us.”
Miles said the Huskers’ preparation this week has been solid as the Huskers look to secure their first win away from Pinnacle Bank Arena since Jan. 14 when Nebraska knocked off Indiana in Bloomington.
“They’ve practiced really hard,” Miles said. “Their attention to detail has been very good. They know what’s at stake with Michigan and really, it comes down to finding that way to win. How do you come out on top in a difficult road game? I think they’ve approached it in a good manner.”
Tipoff is set for 6:01 p.m. on ESPN with Dave Flemming, Dan Dakich and Molly McGrath 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.