Nebraska lost junior guard Anton Gill to a season-ending injury just before conference play began but rallied to win its first three conference games before falling at home to Northwestern. Now, the Huskers have lost another key rotation player and will look to respond the same way on Saturday at Michigan.
Starting center Ed Morrow Jr. is out indefinitely while dealing with a stress reaction in his foot, leaving the Huskers with nine available scholarship players.
“We’ve lost two really good athletes now,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said after practice on Friday evening. “Ed was a guy that made a lot of big plays. He was our body guard. But at the same time, those young guys now, they’re kind of at the point where, ‘OK, step up, baby.’ We had a pretty good practice today and I think tomorrow’s will be a pretty good practice and we’ll be ready to go.”
Freshmen Isaiah Roby and Jeriah Horne have each split their minutes at the small and power forward spots, and without Morrow both will be relied upon for more minutes inside.
“I’m not the biggest guy out there obviously in the Big Ten but I use my length to my advantage,” the 6-foot-8, 214-pound Roby said. “I use my strengths – my length and quickness over bigger guys. Whoever I need to guard, whoever Coach tells me to guard, that’s who I’m going to do my best to try to take out of the game.”
The injury also opens the door for two players who haven’t seen the floor very much lately to earn some minutes in the frontcourt.
“We’ve still got Nick Fuller and Jack McVeigh that haven’t been playing much, so I would expect using those two more,” Miles said.
Miles said he wasn’t ready to decide who would start in Morrow’s place at Michigan. One candidate is freshman center Jordy Tshimanga.
“He’s practicing better and better,” Miles said. “Sometimes I think he maybe overthinks things. Not starting him sometimes maybe works against him. That might be a reason to start him, actually; get him out there and get him in action right away. But I’m not sure then, if I start both of my centers, that’s not the brightest bulb in Las Vegas either … This will be an opportunity for him to play through some mistakes – if he can stay on the floor without fouling.”
Sophomore Michael Jacobson, who starts at power forward, is the only other player on the roster with enough size to play center at 6-foot-9 and 243 pounds. Regardless of who starts, Jacobson will have to slide over to the five for much more of the game than he has been this season.
“It’s been good so far,” Jacobson said about practices without his frontcourt mate. “I’ve got a lot of faith in Jordy and myself. It’s something that I guess I’m familiar with; I did it a little bit last year, or I guess quite a bit last year. I kind of know what’s going on and I think I will be good to get back and get down low a little bit. I think Jordy’s ready; I think he’s excited too. He’s grown a lot and it seems like he’s always trying to learn more.”
Miles said he’s not sure about starting both of the guys that will play the five in Jacobson and Tshimanga, but Michigan rolls out a starting frontcourt of 6-foot-10, 240-pound D.J. Wilson and 6-foot-11, 240-pound Moritz Wagner and brings the 6-foot9, 240-pound Mark Donnal off the bench.
“DJ Wilson would be a good match-up for Michael and then [Moritz] Wagner for Jordy, but I’m not sure I want to start that way,” Miles said. “We’ll just see.”
Regardless of who starts, Miles said no one player can replace what Morrow brought to the line-up; it will be a team effort.
“Just as a team, you have to do other things better,” Miles said. “We have to be able to, defensively, rebound better by just making a cognitive effort to block out, get back better on defense, don’t foul as much. Maybe we can throw in some 3s.”
Miles said a fast start will be important after the Wolverines raced out to an early lead and cruised to an 81-68 win in Lincoln last season.
“These guys hopped on us like 18-5 last year, got us all kinds of ways,” Miles said. “We just have to come out right way and punch first. We have to take the fight to them.”
Zak Irvin, a 6-foot-6 senior wing, leads Michigan at 13.8 points per game with three other Wolverines also averaging double figures scoring. Senior point guard Derrick Walton, sophomore Wagner and Wilson and senior Duncan Robinson all shoot better than 39 percent from the 3-point line. The Wolverines are 11-6 overall and 1-3 in the Big Ten and are coming off of an 85-69 loss to Illinois on Wednesday.
As for the Huskers, Roby is trying to work through a back injury that had him limited in the last two games. Miles said he’s not yet back to 100 percent but that he would be fine.
“I’ve done a lot of rehab this week,” Roby said. “I feel pretty good. This is the most basketball, the most preparation, lifting I’ve done in my entire life. All the freshmen went through it last year they said, so I’m kind of just going through it. But I think my body’s just starting to feel a lot better in general.”
Miles also shared more details about Morrow’s injury, which is to the same foot but in a different spot than the plantar fasciitis that kept him out of four games and limited him the rest of the season as a freshman.
“I noticed a couple games ago he had his [shoe] off at halftime, and RJ [Pietig], our trainer, said ‘He’s feeling some issues in his foot; It’s getting sore.’ A few days later we played another game, he played great, and afterwards it was sore,” Miles said. “We didn’t practice him going into Northwestern and at the same time, we were doing a scan and the scan came up with just a little reaction, not a fracture or anything like that. He tried to play but you could tell he was not himself. I met with him, met with the doctor, met with the trainer and just decided to shut him down.”
Tip-off at Ann Arbor is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday and the game will be televised on BTN.
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.