Nebraska opened conference play against the best team in the Big Ten, and potentially in the country, in Michigan State on Dec. 3. The Spartans ran the Huskers out of the gym on their way to an 86-57 beatdown.
Since then, however, Nebraska has won two straight league games and had a couple close calls against tournament teams in Kansas and Creighton. On Saturday, the Huskers will have another chance to prove how far they’ve come since that meeting with the Spartans as Nebraska heads to No. 12/13 Purdue.
The Boilermakers (14-2, 3-0) have emerged as a legitimate challenger to Michigan State for the Big Ten title this season despite losing last year’s Big Ten Player of the Year in Caleb Swanigan. Purdue returned almost everybody else including 7-foot-2, 290-pound center Isaac Haas and a cast of knock-down 3-point shooters around him.
“Not only is Purdue great inside with Isaac Haas and even what [7-foot-3, 250-pound freshman] Matt Harms brings with shot-blocking and his presence and activity, they’re a great 3-point shooting team, they’re a great ball-handling team and they defend really, really well,” Coach Tim Miles said. “They just dominate every stat category. They had that hiccup when we put them on an island [at the Battle for Atlantis], but I don’t think they're going to let us go play in the Caymans or the Bahamas or wherever it is. You have to credit them — Matt [Painter] has done a great job with them and I think they’re right there with Michigan State when I look at the contenders for the conference championship.”
Haas, a senior now, is averaging 14.8 points on 63.9 percent shooting inside while the Boilermakers as a team are shooting 41.5 percent from deep, good for 13th nationally. Because of that sharp-shooting, doubling down on Haas is hard to do without giving up open looks from the perimeter. Miles is counting on the trio of sophomore Jordy Tshimanga (6-foot-11, 268 pounds), senior Duby Okeke (6-foot-8, 247 pounds) and junior Tanner Borchardt (6-foot-8, 265 pounds) to hold their own inside.
“I think you have to look at stopping the inside game for them; it’s such a high-percentage play for them,” Miles said. “The good news is we have three posts I feel very comfortable playing and they’ve got 15 fouls.”
Okeke knows he’s out-matched according to size, but he said he has plenty of experience playing against 7-footers.
“What I’ve learned just in general is you’re not always going to be the biggest person — well in his case, he probably is most of the time — but I think for me, what I kind of learned, even at my old school, it’s more so like a whoever has the best footwork kind of matchup,” Okeke said. “You’re not always going to just keep banging with him because that gets you tired, so I think always being in the right position and just always being physical as much as you can, use your lower body. I think for him, what I can do is just kind of use my quickness and kind of bother him a little bit.”
That being said, it is actually 6-foot-1 sophomore guard Carsen Edwards who is leading the team in scoring at 17.4 points per game, shooting 36.7 percent from 3 and 61 percent inside the arc, which is nearly a 20-percentage-point increase from what he did as a freshman. Add in versatile senior forward Vince Edwards (13.8 points, 8.5 rebounds and 2.4 assists per game with 40 percent 3-point shooting) and the Boilermakers have plenty of weapons on offense, so the Huskers will have to be locked in defensively both on the ball and in help defense with shot-blockers like Isaiah Roby and Isaac Copeland.
“We need those guys helping out on [Carsen Edwards], and certainly then Evan Taylor and James Palmer are going to get cracks at him too,” Miles said. “Vince Edwards is a really good player and Carsen is really coming on strong at the guard position. Both of those guys are really troublesome.”
The Huskers will be looking to replicate last year’s magic when Nebraska won an 83-80 thriller against the Boilermakers in Lincoln on Jan. 29, 2017. Purdue shot a blistering 14-of-24 from deep in that game, but Nebraska stifled Swanigan inside, holding him to 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting.
“We looked at that game plan,” junior point guard Glynn Watson Jr. said. “We’re going to basically stick to the same game plan we did last year. We changed a couple more things just because they lost Biggie [Swanigan], but they still have a lot of good pieces on their team. We’re going to try to do everything we can to disrupt them.”
Tip-off at Mackey Arena on Saturday is set for 1:15 p.m. on BTN. Kevin Kugler and Stephen Bardo will be 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.