We have arrived at the stretch run for Nebraska and four of the last five games will be played in the friendly confines of Pinnacle Bank Arena, starting with a rematch with Rutgers on Saturday afternoon.
“At this point of the season, when you’re 18-8 and 9-4 in your league, you either have to win or can’t afford to lose,” Coach Tim Miles said. “If you’re the favorite, you can’t afford to lose. If you’re on the road playing a tougher team like Minnesota, you have to win that game. So you feel that sense of urgency all the time. It makes for a good sleep at the end of March.”
The Huskers have won four straight while the Scarlet Knights have dropped their last six as Saturday’s game is a match-up of teams heading in opposite directions.
Despite their record (12-14, 2-11), the Scarlet Knights have given the best in the Big Ten a serious run for their money, losing by four to Michigan State and by two to Purdue, both top-five teams nationally.
“Rutgers has played the best in our league the toughest,” Miles said. “We need to be prepared for a very difficult game on Saturday afternoon, and then another one on Tuesday [against Maryland].”
Rutgers gave Nebraska a battle in Piscataway on Jan. 4 as well before Nebraska pulled out a 60-54 win behind 23 points from Isaac Copeland. The rest of the Huskers totaled just 37 points on 38 shots.
“Rutgers probably defended us better than anybody has, and we’re not an offensive juggernaut,” Miles said. “They really did a great job. What they did was make us turn the ball over late in the game. That was the disappointing part as a coach is we didn’t play well in transition and we didn’t play well when we had a lead and we had a chance to put them away. They can get going, they can get hot — they just proved it against Purdue. We know what they’re capable of. I’ve got the utmost respect for Steve Pikiell and his group. We’ll be ready.”
The Huskers turned the ball over 16 times in their first meeting with Rutgers, tied for their most in any game this season.
The Scarlet Knights will be without two of their top five scorers, however, as senior guard Mike Williams (9.2 points per game) and sophomore forward Eugene Omoruyi (7.6 points per game) both remain out. Williams missed the first game against Nebraska as well.
Nebraska is coming off its best road offensive performance of the season in a win at Minnesota, but said he Miles feels like the defense has slipped a bit over the last few and he will be looking to get that area of the game tightened up on Saturday.
“The changes we’re going to make are … It’s not so much Rutgers as what we’ve allowed the last few games: better 3-point shooting from our opponents. We have to tighten that up. Screen-and-roll defense, how we double the post, things like that are really what we need to get better at.”
Nebraska has allowed its last three opponents to shoot 9-of-21 (42.9 percent), 7-of-20 (35 percent) and 10-of-19 (52.6 percent) from 3-point land. Nebraska held Wisconsin to 63 points, but that game is sandwiched in between 84 points by Iowa and 85 by the Golden Gophers.
“I think you have ebbs and flows and I think four of our last five opponents have demanded a double-team down low,” Miles said. “You’re vulnerable when that happens. That hasn’t always been the case; we haven’t always had to do that. That kind of goes with the territory.”
Offensively, Miles hopes to see his team improve in the open court. The Huskers have to make better decisions when they have chances to run and convert those opportunities into points.
“I think when we’re good in transition, especially on the road, we can be a good team,” Miles said. “Our half court offense really has been pretty solid in league games. Since the first of the year I’ve charted everything and since I think, we found who we are, so to speak, that’s the best basis of information I can gather. Our main weakness has been in transition, when we get foolish in transition. It allowed Illinois to come back and Wisconsin to stay close and we were not good against Rutgers and at Wisconsin we were 0-for-our-first-seven transition opportunities. Imagine that. So now we have to score every time the next time just to get to a point a possession, and that’s not enough to win.”
Tipoff at the Vault is set for 3 p.m. on BTN with Kevin Kugler and Shon Morris on the call.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.