Positive COVID-19 tests ahead of the return to classes at Nebraska hit the pause button on the Huskers’ season last week, but to avoid missing a second consecutive game and causing further scheduling problems down the line Nebraska and Wisconsin agreed to push back their meeting in Lincoln that was originally scheduled for Tuesday.
Now, the Badgers are visiting Lincoln on Thursday as part of a Huskers versus Badgers double-header at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The men will tip off at 4 p.m. on Big Ten Network while the women — who are coming off their own pause — will face Wisconsin at 8 p.m.
Coach Fred Hoiberg said that of the players who tested positive and had to isolate over the past week, five returned to the practice floor on Tuesday for a light workout and another returned on Wednesday. Hoiberg will have his full roster available (outside of the guys who are out indefinitely with injuries) but he’ll have to keep a close eye on how guys are doing stamina-wise.
“It’s hard not to have rust when you take that amount of time, basically when you’re in isolation, can’t even get in the gym, can’t get your heart rate elevated and just had to be really careful with those guys when they were in their quarantine … Obviously having one practice going into this game tomorrow is not ideal, but it is what it is,” Hoiberg said. “It’s the time that we’re living in and you’ve just got to go out there do everything you can to compete in the minutes that you play. I’m sure we’re going to have guys who are going to get tired quickly. We’ve just got to be ready to go out there and compete.”
According to local directed health measures, those who test positive can end isolation after five days but will have to wear masks in public for five days after that, which means the players who tested positive for Nebraska will have to play in face coverings on Thursday.
Hoiberg said the team went a little harder in practice on Wednesday than they normally would the day before a game to get the guys who just returned a good workout, and the play was understandably a bit sloppy coming off the layoff.
“We’ve got to clean it up against a really, really good team that doesn’t beat themselves,” Hoiberg said. “So we’ve just got to go out there and play together, play hard, compete and hopefully give ourselves a chance.”
Trey McGowens, who made his return from a broken foot in the last game before the positive tests, said the Huskers had some key pieces among the players who tested positive, so failing short of the minimum number of scholarship players needed to keep playing was something of a blessing in disguise. However, he was mostly just thinking about last year when Derrick Walker made his midseason debut and then Nebraska had to hit pause the day after that game and hoping history wouldn’t repeat itself as that pause lasted a month.
With Trey McGowens’ injury and the program’s pause out of the way, Bryce McGowens said he’s looking forward to getting to play with his older brother for the rest of the season.
“I’ve been looking forward to him getting back on the court,” Bryce McGowens said. “We’ve been counting the days. Us being able to step on the floor together again like a the beginning of the season, it’s going to be fun, exciting … He’s one of the reasons I do it, so just us being able to compete again, lift each other up, encourage each other, it’s going to be fun.”
The 11th-ranked Badgers are coming off their second conference loss, at home against Michigan State last Friday. Still, they’re 15-3 overall thanks in large part to sophomore guard Johnny Davis, one of the leading contenders for national player of the year. The 6-foot-5, 196-pound guard is averaging 22.3 points, 7.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals, leading Wisconsin in all four categories.
“He’s a three-level scorer, very confident right now in his game, great in transition, shooting the ball at a very high clip right now and just really good off the bounce,” Hoiberg said. “They isolate him in that mid-post area a lot. They’ve got some good actions that they’ll run to get him in the post where he can take advantage of his size and his athleticism. I think Johnny Davis is the most improved player in the country.”
Trey McGowens’ availability is a big deal for Nebraska and he’ll likely draw the assignment on Davis when he’s on the court, but the veteran guard won’t be able to mirror the Badgers’ star entirely as he’s playing 34.8 minutes per game and McGowens is not yet at full strength from a game shape standpoint.
“Obviously Trey is our best perimeter defender, there’s no secret about that,” Hoiberg said. “But we’re still going to have a load that we have to keep Trey under just for his long-term health, so we’re going to have to have a lot of guys. He’s not an individual problem, he’s a team problem and we have to have great awareness of where he is at all times.”
Davis isn’t the only productive player in the Wisconsin backcourt, however, as fifth-year senior Brad Davison is averaging 15.4 points while shooting 37% from 3 on 7.1 attempts per game. Davis and Davison combined for 47 points in the Badgers’ 86-74 loss to the Spartans.
Thursday will serve as a homecoming of sorts for Wisconsin freshman Chucky Hepburn as well as the Bellevue West alumnus, who starts at the point for the Badgers and is averaging 7.1 points, is more than comfortable at Pinnacle Bank Arena after winning a state championship there in 2020.
“I’ve been really impressed,” Hoiberg said. “I’m not surprised with the impact that he’s having on this team as a freshman, just watching him a couple years at school and seeing him go out there and compete against my boys, my twins, those games against Pius. I just absolutely think the world of the kid and everything that he’s all about, how good he is just of setting his team up. He’s always been a guy that’s played beyond his years. Going there, I think he’s the first freshman starter I want to say since [D’Mitrik] Trice, to go in there and have the type of impact that he has on their team. He’s just a rock. He’s steady. He gets them into their offense. He’s always been a very good defender on the ball and off the ball. He’s got terrific hands, great instincts. So yeah, he’s having a great impact on this team. He’s a great kid. I’m happy for him.”
The Badgers could be without a key interior piece, however, as third-leading scorer Tyler Wahl’s status is up in the air after missing the Michigan State game with an ankle injury. The 6-foot-9, 220-pound junior is averaging 11.0 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks this season.
Wisconsin, ranked 27th overall at KenPom, is 28th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 46th in adjusted defensive efficiency. The Badgers have the second-lowest turnover rate in the court at 12.5% which offsets their relative inefficiency shooting the ball (232nd in effective field goal percentage including 247th in 3-point percentage at 32.1%).
The Badgers are strong defensively in the half court but susceptible in transition as they are allowing 1.148 points per possession and 52.8% shooting, ranked in the second percentile nationally according to Synergy.
“It’s just being disciplined and not not really gambling,” McGowens said about Wisconsin’s defense. “Last year, I know we had some success in getting out on the run and in transition. So hopefully we can get the ball moving and just get out and run. That’s the style Coach Hoiberg really envisioned for this offense to be so really just trying to get back to that.”
Chris Vosters and Trent Meacham will call the game on Big Ten Network.
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.