The calendar just turned to December on Friday, but for the Big Ten, conference play has already arrived with a pair of league games for each team during the first week of the month to allow for the early conference tournament at Madison Square Garden.
Who did the Huskers draw? Oh, just the two winningest teams in the league through the first few weeks in Minnesota (7-1) and Michigan State (6-1).
“We’re starting earlier than usual,” junior forward Isaac Copeland said. “This is my first time being in the Big Ten and we have a lot of new guys, but we had a really good practice [on Saturday]. We really got after it and we kind of simulated the Big Ten crowds with the music and stuff. I’m really excited and we’ll find out tomorrow how ready we are.”
While Miles said he could certainly use some more time to tinker and develop this year’s team that features a lot of new faces, the Huskers (6-2) were going to have to play the Spartans and Golden Gophers at some point regardless.
“We’ve got to play them,” Miles said. “I think our guys feel good about where we’re at. They feel like we’re an improving product; I don’t feel like we’re a finished product, so this is a good time to get tested like this.”
Miles said Sunday is as good a time as any to get No. 3 Michigan State as the Spartans just wrapped up a tough run through the PK80 tournament and a top-five clash with Notre Dame. However, the roster is loaded with talent no matter how difficult the Spartans’ schedule has been.
“There’s only so much you can do,” Miles said. “Michigan State’s got a tremendous amount of talent and versatility. You look at them and they’ve got one lineup where they run with three guards, two of them are all-league guards, and then they have a lineup where they run three bigs, two of those guys are NBA guys and the other guys is just all-league. They run a lot of problems at you.
Forwards Miles Bridges, a sophomore, and Jaren Jackson Jr., a freshman, are both projected lottery picks while sophomore center Nick Ward, sophomore point guard Cassius Winston and sophomore guard Joshua Langford were all top-50 recruits coming out of high school and are all averaging double figures.
“What are your control-ables? And that’s ourselves,” Miles continued. “So of course we look at just playing more sound defense — you have to slow down their attack. It would be nice to score; that helps. But at the same time, they’re really prolific no matter what in transition, so that’s just going to be something we have to deal with all night. We’re going to have to do a great job defensively.”
After shooting better than 32 percent from 3-point range in just one of their first five games, the Huskers have shot better than 43 percent in each of their last three, shooting 27-of-59 from deep during that span. Continuing that stretch of hot shooting will be key against a Michigan State defense that is ranked No. 1 in the country in 2-point percentage allowed at 35.3 percent.
“They’ve got so much length and athleticism; they’re just so good …. For us, we have to do what we do and step up to the plate,” Miles said. “Make some big shots, and get to the foul line on a regular basis and just stay on the attack.”
Nebraska will have to hit the road to face the Spartans before returning home to host Minnesota on Tuesday. This will be Nebraska’s first true road game since its 79-56 loss at St. John’s on Nov. 16, and the Huskers are eager to take another crack at performing on the road.
“We’re not a team that’s going to just lay down,” Copeland said. “It’s a long year. That was what, our third game of the season? We’ve made a lot of strides since then and we’re looking forward to it, coming out and having a better showing.”
Nebraska could get a boost with the return of sophomore forward Isaiah Roby, who went down with an ankle injury early in the game against Long Beach State on Nov. 26 and missed Nebraska’s win against Boston College on Wednesday.
“Isaiah completed two practices,” Miles said. “I don’t think he’s 90 percent, but at the same time him at 88 percent or 81 percent or whatever you want to give him, 50 percent, helps us. So it’s good to have him out there.”
Sunday’s game is set for 3:30 p.m. on FS1.
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.