Last week, Michigan State returned to competition after a pair of COVID-19-related postponements, opening with a road swing featuring three road games in less than a week. The Spartans went 0-3.
Now Nebraska, fresh off its own three-week COVID-19-induced pause, will head to East Lansing to take on the Spartans.
“I just look at what Michigan State went through in a similar type situation to what we’re about to go through, playing a lot of games in a short amount of time,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Friday. “For Michigan State after their shutdown, they played three road games against three really good teams and I saw them progressively get better with each performance. That Rutgers game was a tough one for them, they played much better at Ohio State and I thought they were terrific against Iowa, especially with their start and they really shot the ball well after struggling to shoot it those first couple of games.”
Jack Hoiberg, a walk-on at Michigan State, told his dad that it will likely be tough early on but that shots will start to fall as they get back into the swing of things. Michigan State scored 37 points and shot 28.6% from the field in a loss to Rutgers in its return to play. The Spartans shot 32.1% from the filed in a 79-62 loss at Ohio State on Sunday. On Tuesday, Michigan State shot 41.4% (12-of-29) from 3 as they gave the Iowa Hawkeyes a battle in an 84-78 loss.
Nebraska returned to practice on Sunday but lost sophomore point guard Dalano Banton to an ankle injury. He missed two days of practice, but Hoiberg said he’s been full-go the last two days and is “looking much better.”
Hoiberg expects to have his full complement of 12 healthy scholarship players available for this first time this season for Saturday’s game. That includes big men Derrick Walker, Yvan Ouedraogo and Eduardo Andre. Walker made his Husker debut in Nebraska’s last game before the shutdown while Eduardo and Ouedraogo have both missed time because of COVID-19.
“I told them I’m going to play them in short bursts; not just our bigs, everybody,” Hoiberg said. “I know early on they’re going to get winded pretty quickly. So it’s about getting them out, hopefully getting a second wind at some point during the game. But I know early it’s going to be two, three times up and down the floor and they’re going to be tired. So we’re going to have to shuffle guys in and out. It is going to be great to have the full roster available. We just got two of them back yesterday when they were cleared for full activity, so those guys I have to be a little bit careful with them as far as how many minutes I’m going to play them. This thing’s been crazy. We just have to go out and really monitor the bodies.”
Though Hoiberg will have his full complement of players, he’s going to be a few bodies short on the bench for road games moving forward. Assistant coach Doc Sadler and special assistant to the head coach Bobby Lutz will not travel with the team the rest of the season. Hoiberg and Armon Gates will handle the on-court instruction while the team is on the road.
“I’m not going to travel Doc and Bobby just because the importance of trying to keep everybody healthy and minimize the risk as much as possible,” Hoiberg said. “I just told Doc don’t watch The Batchelor on Monday, make sure he watches the game. He and Bobby will send their thoughts and at each timeout I’ll have the guy they’re sending to come up and tell me exactly what they’re thinking. Right now it’s not worth it to me to have extra risk involved with guys that are in the at-risk categories Just to be safe, I’m having those guys come in right before practice and generally they leave right when practice is over to mitigate the risk. So we will be down two very important parts of our staff.”
Though his rotations and substitution patterns will be different, Hoiberg said he’s not planing to dramatically alter their style of play.
“We’re still going to try to get the thing up with pace and if we can have smart attack early in the possession we’ll take it; if not, then we need to get it out and execute,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we did a much better job of that in our last game against Indiana, especially as the game went along. In the second half I thought we had really good execution. Even down the stretch I thought we had really good looks, got fouled a couple times, just didn’t convert, obviously. We’ll still look to attack. It’s when we’re at our best, and especially off of misses, if we can get that thing off the rim we will certainly look to attack as we always do.”
If there’s any silver lining, it might be that Nebraska’s first game back from its lengthy pause is against a team the Huskers have already seen this season. The Spartans beat the Huskers 84-77 at Pinnacle Bank Arena back on Jan. 2.
“The fact that we have seen them, and it was two games ago — it felt like a year ago, but it was one of our last two games and we did some good things in that game,” Hoiberg said. “Obviously there were several things that we needed to clean up in order to get over the hump and get the win. The fact that we have seen these guys recently and it’s a team that we’ve seen play a lot of games here in a short amount of time here in this past week.
“It’s going to come down to three games for us: taking care of the basketball, rebounding the ball and getting back in transition. I don’t care who you play, those are generally the three keys that you put up on the board, but especially against a Michigan State team that’s coming home after three tough losses. We’re going to have to do those three things well and do the basics well to have a chance.”
Tipoff against the Spartans (8-7, 2-7 Big Ten) on Saturday is set for 5:30 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network. Lisa Byington and Stephen Bardo will have 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.