The first time the Huskers played Rutgers, the Scarlet Knights ran them off their own floor on the way to a 79-62 win on Jan. 3. Nebraska got another crack at Rutgers, who had entered the AP Top 25 for the first time since 1979 earlier in the week, on Saturday, and this time, Nebraska gave the Scarlet Knights all they could handle at the RAC.
Still, the Huskers came up short thanks to a Geo Baker game-winner with 1.2 to play that gave Rutgers a 75-72 win, improving Rutgers’ home record to 14-0 this season.
The two results against Rutgers show the progress Nebraska has made in three short weeks, but it also showed the Huskers still have further to go.
“We fought hard,” Haanif Cheatham said. “We came back, we showed a competitive spirit. I think we gained it back; a couple games ago we probably lost it a little bit but Saturday I think we gained it back. I think we showed what we can do again. I think we’re right there, we just have to put a full 40-minute game straight and I think we’ll be fine.”
The loss was Nebraska’s fifth in a row. Nebraska’s next opportunity to end that losing streak will come on Tuesday as Michigan comes to town. But before the Huskers could move on with their preparation for that game, Coach Fred Hoiberg felt it was important to address the death of Kobe Bryant with his team on Sunday.
“I felt it was important to go in and address it and talk about it with the group,” Hoiberg said. “We talked about it for a while, and as soon as we got done talking about it we moved on. We’ve got a job to do, to come out and prepare the best we can for this game tomorrow. It’s not easy when you’ve got something like this. Every guy in that locker room, I asked them — I talked about the guys that I looked up to and every single one of them raised their hand. Kobe was one of the main players that they looked to. I think in today’s generation, Kobe and LeBron [James] are probably the two that are looked up to the most by this generation of kid and for our guys it was tough, it was somber. In practice, it was quiet in there, but they really picked it up as practice went on and I thought we had a really sharp preparation heading into this game against Michigan tomorrow.”
Nebraska isn’t the only team struggling. The Wolverines have lost four straight and eight of their last 12 after getting off to a 7-0 start to the season with wins over Creighton, North Carolina and Louisville. Michigan is 11-8 overall and 2-6 in the Big Ten, half a game ahead of Nebraska (7-13, 2-7) in the conference standings. The Huskers aren’t taking the Wolverines lightly, however, despite their record.
“They’re a really good team,” Cheatham said. “They were the No. 1 team in the country for a reason. Every team has their struggles throughout the season; I think they’re in one now just as we are. It’s going to be a battle tomorrow night.”
Michigan’s defense — the foundation of the team last season under former head coach John Beilein and his “defensive coordinator Luke Yaklich” — has fallen apart recently as Michigan is last in the Big Ten in opponent scoring during conference play at 74.5 points per game.
That defense took a big hit on Monday as well as Michigan announced that coach Juwan Howard had suspended starting point guard Zavier Simpson, one of the top on-ball defenders in the country, for a violation of team policies.
“While we are disappointed with what has transpired with Zavier, we know there are always lessons to learn and grow from,” Howard said in a release. “We take these matters and consequences very seriously. Moving forward, we will continue to handle this matter appropriately within our program and basketball family.”
Simpson is leading the NCAA in assists per game at 8.3 and is also averaging 12.8 points per game, third on the team. Even without Simpson, however, Michigan poses some tough challenges for Nebraska starting with 7-foot-1 senior center Jon Teske (team-high 13.9 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.9 blocks and 1.2 steals per game).
“Teske is a guy that they go to on the block, a guy that size with that type of skill set, he can step out and knock down the 3, a very versatile player,” Hoiberg said. “[Isaia] Livers, it sounds like a pretty good chance he’s going to be back tomorrow after going down I think with 15 minutes left against Illinois the other day, but he is really good, scores from all three areas on the floor, high-level finisher, athlete, shooting 50% from the 3-point line and a guy that can post as well. So great size, great speed, they really get the ball up and down the court, shoot a lot of transition 3s, but we’re going to have to do a good job protecting the paint.”
A big part of Michigan’s recent struggles has been the absence of Livers, the 6-foot-7 forward who is averaging 13.1 points wile shooting 50% from the field and from 3. A groin injury sidelined him for six games and he re-aggravated the injury in Saturday’s 64-62 loss against Illinois, his first game back in the lineup. Livers is considered day-to-day.
Michigan is last in the Big Ten in conference play in 3-point percentage at 27.4%, thought the Wolverines shot it well in nonconference play and are still at 34.4% overall. Besides Livers, Michigan’s best perimeter threats are junior guard Eli Brooks (10.8 points per game, 38.1% from 3) and sophomore guard David DeJulius (7.7 points per game, 37.5% from 3). DeJulius will likely see increased playing time in Simpson’s absence.
Like Hoiberg, Howard is a first-year Big Ten coach as the Wolverines hired him away from the Miami Heat’s coaching staff to take over his alma mater after Beilein’s departure for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
“I actually tried to hire Juwan when I got the Bulls job but Miami wouldn’t let me talk to him,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a great person. I go all the way back to high school and AAU days when he was playing in Chicago. I played the Fab Five, got absolutely destroyed by them in the Palace. But he’s an awesome guy and I know he’ll do a great job at Michigan.”
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday is set for 6 p.m. CT on BTN with Dave Feldman, 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.