The COVID-19 pandemic wreaked all kinds of havoc on college basketball nonconference schedules. The NCAA slashed game totals, high-majors pushed home-and-homes or multi-year series back and intra-conference clashes like the Gavitt Games took a one-year hiatus.
One event that didn’t take 2020 off is the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. The Huskers will take on Georgia Tech for the second straight year, though round two is in Lincoln on Wednesday.
“Its a big game,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “It’s arguably the two best leagues in the country going at it. The opportunity to be on national television, to play these showcase games—you see the games that are being played tonight, you have some phenomenal matchups, you’ve got a couple more great matchups tomorrow and then unfortunately you’ve had a couple games that are postponed right now that we’ll see if they get back on the schedule. It’s a great event, it’s a phenomenal event. Hopefully we’ll do our part and go out and play well tomorrow and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Louisville at Wisconsin and North Carolina State at Michigan were both postponed because of COVID-19 issues. With those games off the schedule, Nebraska’s game got moved from ESPNU to ESPN2.
The Huskers lost their previous game to COVID-19 issues at Florida A&M, but the Huskers don’t think the layoff will impact them as they head into Wednesday’s game.
“It was not ideal, losing that game, just starting prep and all that and getting ready for the game,” senior Thorir Thorbjarnarson said. “We just practiced instead; we took Sunday off but practiced up until that and then we started prepping for Georgia Tech. It’s not going to affect us. It was sad, you want to play as many games as you can and we were obviously looking forward to the game, but I think with the games that we had before we’ve seen where we’re at. It would have been good to get another game in there, but we just have to come out ready tomorrow.”
Georgia Tech hosted the Huskers in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge last season, blowing out the Huskers 73-56. Thorbjarnarson is one of just two Huskers on the roster who played in that game a year ago, while the Yellow Jackets return most of their rotation.
“They return a lot of players and they’re a really experienced team,” Thorbjarnarson said. “That game was pretty physical. They play a lot of zone, I remember that; that 1-3-1. I feel like we just have to be ready for that and oviously they’re coming off a big win as well, so we have to be ready to start off well.”
Georgia Tech got off to an ice-cold start to the season, losing to Georgia State and Mercer in its first two games. Coach Josh Pastner decided not to hold full-contact practices until the season began as an extra precaution. The Yellow Jackets got off the schneid in a big way on Sunday with a 79-62 win against Kentucky.
Last year’s game against Georgia Tech was one of Nebraska’s worst offensive performances of the season. The Huskers shot 38.5% inside the arc, 23.1% from deep and 44.4% from the foul line with 17 turnovers. A big part of that was the Yellow Jackets’ version of a 1-3-1 zone defense.
“They play a very unique defense and it’s something where you saw in their last game against Kentucky they forced 22 turnovers out of it,” Hoiberg said. “They do a really good job in their gaps, they play passing lanes, they’ve got great hands, they do a good job stepping in and drawing charges. It’s a very difficult zone to prepare for. It’s very tough to simulate in practice because of their length. It’s a 1-3-1 that morphs back into a 2-3, 3-2 based on where your players are and they match up out of it.
“That’s one thing last year—I thought we played on our heels a little bit. We have to continue to play fast, we have to continue to play with pace and try to get down the floor quickly regardless of what defense we’re playing against. That’s what the zone is meant to do, it tries to take you out of your rhythm. I thought Georgia Tech did a phenomenal job against Kentucky of doing that and again forcing those turnovers which got them out in transition, got them easy baskets and got them confident early in that game. I thought Georgia Tech really dominated that game from start to finish. We’re going to have to come out and hopefully get off to a good start, hopefully knock some shots down early and really stay in attack mode for all 40 minutes.”
Point guard Dalano Banton will be in charge of keeping the Huskers organized offensively and directing traffic against whatever defensive look the Yellow Jackets show.
“They want to make you play the way you don’t want to play, force turnovers with their zone and get into those gaps and try to make you force stuff that you don’t want to force with that zone,” Banton said. “That zone’s going to be hard to break, but I feel like if we play with confidence and play strong and play through whatever pressure we’re getting and limit turnovers—I think that’s one thing we’ve been good at this year is trying to go for under 10 turnovers per game … I feel like if we limit our turnovers with them trying to pressure us and stuff like that, if we’re just strong with the ball, I feel like we’ll be fine and we’ll be all right and we’ll have guys that knock down spots and cut to the open spots.”
Last season, guard Michael Devoe led the way offensively with 26 points against Nebraska. He led the team in scoring last season at 16.0 points per game. This year, however, he’s gotten off to a slow start, averaging just 12.7 points while shooting 25% from deep. Instead it’s been Moses Wright, a 6-foot-9, 233-pound senior, who has done the heavy lifting.
“Moses Wright has been as good as any player in the country so far,” Hoiberg said. “He’s averaging 24 and I think almost 11 rebounds and has done it in all three games. He’s playing with so much confidence right now is what I’ve seen. He’s 3-for-5 from the 3-point line, he’s facing up in the mid-range and going up without hesitation. He’s averaging five offensive rebounds a game; that’s going to be a huge challenge for us and one of the big keys if we want to win is we’re going to have to do a good job on the glass. He comes from all over the place, transition, he’ll fly out of nowhere for tip-dunks and he’s got great athleticism.
“Then on the block, he’s got a really nice jump hook, a good pump-fake down there, he had several three-point plays against Kentucky. The biggest thing about Moses Wright is the motor that he plays with — the kid plays so hard and plays with great passion. That’s a tough match-up for us just because of his size and athleticism.”
Georgia Tech also has a senior point guard in Jose Alvarado that did not play in their meeting last year. He’s second on the team in scoring at 15.7 points per game while also averaging 5.3 points, 4.3 assists and 3.0 steals.
“The thing about him is he’s the heart and soul of that team, just because the passion, the energy that he plays with,” Hoiberg said. “He’s got great hands, he creates a lot of steals, he’s the head of the snake in that zone. He’ll pick you up at half court and really make you work right as you get over the line. He’s a guy that can make shots and make plays. He’s a very good lead guard that does a lot of things for that team, most notably his defense.”
Georgia Tech is also getting double figures from seniors Bubba Parham (15.0 points per game) and Jordan Usher (12.7 points and 6.3 rebounds per game). After a 3-1 start against mid-major competition, the Huskers feel like they’re ready for the step up in competition they’ll see with games against Georgia Tech and Creighton this week.
“I feel like we’ve all been waiting for this,” Banton said. “The nonconference schedule is coming to an end shortly and we know that it’s going to take a big step headed into the Big Ten. We know that having a good, talented team tomorrow is going to be a challenge for us, but it’s going to show what we’re made of and what we’re built of. We know we’re ready for it and we know we have to come out and do what we do in order to get the victory.”
The Creighton game on Friday is the last on on the team’s nonconference schedule as things stand now, but the Huskers do have a window between Friday and the start of Big Ten play to schedule a replacement for the Florida A&M game.
“Right now we feel we have flexibility with it and we’ll see how things go these next couple games,” Hoiberg said. “We’ll see. Right now we don’t have anything planned, but we do have flexibility obviously with having one more game in our back pocket.”
Wednesday’s game is scheduled to tip off at 6:15 p.m. CT.
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.