After an 82-53 loss at Michigan in which Coach Tim Miles felt the need to bench three of his starters to start the second half, the Huskers (15-14, 5-13) will hit the road again for one last time this regular season, traveling to East Lansing to take on No. 9 Michigan State on Tuesday.
The Huskers departed early on Monday so that they could get a practice in at the Breslin Center, a change-up from the team’s normal schedule of practice at home the day before the game prior to hitting the road.
“I think just staring at their Big Ten championship banners and their Final Four and their National Championship banners will hopefully get us in the right mindset for what we’re going to face,” Miles said. “I don’t think we did a very good job as a coaching staff, especially me, of — we talked about what Michigan had at stake, but really emphasizing that this is what you’re going to come across. They go out back a few 3s — a late shot clock one and then their 7-1 guy hits a couple and it seems like we just deflate. You have to expect the worst a little bit; they’re going to try to gut you, and then you have to play accordingly.
“So one of the things is we’re going to do is we’ve addressed that quite a bit and we’re going to keep addressing it but we’re going to do it in their gym. We changed up the routine a couple years ago. We had been OK on the road — nobody’s great on the road unless you’re special, and when I say special I mean like a Final Four type team or a second weekend team — but this one, the last two games we’ve been non-compete in my book so we’ve got to do something to rattle the cage.”
James Palmer Jr., Isaiah Roby and Thomas Allen Jr. were all held scoreless in the first half at Ann Arbor and found themselves on the bench to start the second half because of a lack of effort in Miles’ eyes. Miles said he hoped the message has sunk in.
“We practiced well, but then again our practice quality is not always indicative of our play,” Miles said. “What I mean by that is because you don’t have great depth sometimes you can have your way in practice but still not go out and play well in a game. But I think the guys understand that there’s a certain brand of basketball that you have to play, a certain expectation, and if you don’t, it doesn’t matter who you are — you’ll sit and watch.”
The benching method isn’t something that Miles strongly considered earlier in the season because of what was on the line, but Thursday’s game was the breaking point.
“Still this week I think might be the first week we’re not in the first four out or something like that,” Miles said. “It’s a balancing act. But at this point, you’re like ‘No, no, no, no, this is unacceptable.’”
Sophomore wing Nana Akenten, one of the players that started the second half in place of the benched veterans, said effort has been a focus for the team all season long.
“We’ve been talking about it,” Akenten said. “It’s just a matter of executing it and executing our game plan. We’ve been preaching effort since the beginning of the season. We’ve been through some rough patches but that’s never not been a topic of discussion in the locker room. It’s just a matter of executing.”
Akenten was having his best game of the season, putting up 11 points in 10 minutes, before taking a hard fall and bruising his lower back. He did not return to the game afterward but has practiced fully and will be ready to play on Tuesday. That’s not the case for Allen who rolled his ankle in the second half against Michigan. Miles said he is in a boot and is not expected to play.
“He sprained his ankle,” Miles said. “I would say it’s not severe, but a good sprain. It’s not high, but it’s not low; it’s kind of one of those mid. That’s going to take some time.”
Miles said he expects he’ll start Amir Harris at the three and push Palmer to the two against the Spartans. Allen’s absence could create a larger role for Akenten and Thorir Thorbjarnarson off the bench, and the underclassmen will have to pick up the slack from Allen’s absence.
“It’s going to be huge,” Akenten said. “I think everybody’s ready mentally. We’ve been pretty locked in this week. Everybody knows the job they have to get done. We’ll see how it goes on Tuesday.”
The Huskers gave the Spartans a run for their money in their first meeting, falling 70-64 at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Jan. 17. The Spartans were without junior guard Joshua Langford in that game and he has since been ruled out for the season. Michigan State has also lost starting big man Nick Ward and key reserve Kyle Ahrens in recent weeks. Even so, the short-handed Spartans knocked off Michigan 77-70 on Feb. 24, though they did also lose to Indiana for the second time this season, falling 63-62 on Saturday.
“They just won at Michigan, and for whatever reason IU’s got their number,” Miles said. “It’s not often you say this, but I feel bad for Coach [Tom] Izzo. Here’s a guy that loses two lottery picks and it seems like they’re better and they’re on their way to a conference championship and what kind of NCAA Tournament run, and then it’s just one guy after the next. They still have very good players, just less of them. Coach Izzo has always played a lot of guys so I think he’s got guys ready for the moment. It’s too bad about just all those guys but hopefully they get Ward back.”
Junior point guard Cassius Winston is still healthy, however, and he’s leading the way with 19.2 points and 7.6 assists per game. He put up 29 points and six assists against Nebraska in the first game.
“He’s right there for player of the year, there’s no doubt,” Miles said. “He’s just so impressive. There are a lot of impressive guys in this league when you look at Carsen Edwards and Ethan Happ. When I say high quality, they’re not only NBA but these are college All-Americans and maybe National Player of the Year, and he’s right there in my eyes. If you’re the Player of the Year in the Big Ten, you’re going to be in the final three or four, right? He’s an excellent point guard. He’s always been a bit of a nemesis for us I know.”
Tip off on Tuesday is set for 6:01 p.m. CT on ESPN2 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.