“The thing that I have to prevent is ‘Well, here we go again.’ That’s the thing that I need to do a better job of with this group because when the tough times hit and you see the heads dropping, this league’s too good and we have too thin of a margin to overcome that,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said after Nebraska’s 79-68 loss to Michigan on Tuesday. “That’s the thing that I thought hurt us tonight. When you go on a little bit of a slide or you go on a slide like we’re going through right now, human nature, when times get tough, is instead of coming together, you pull apart a little bit.”
That slide is a six-game losing streak with two of those losses coming at Pinnacle Bank Arena. The Huskers are 7-14 on the season and 2-8 in the Big Ten, ahead of only Northwestern in the conference standings. Hoiberg hasn’t seen the disappointment from the losses carry over into how the team prepares just yet, however.
“Guys are continuing to come in here and work and have good practices,” Hoiberg said after Friday morning’s practice. “Yesterday, first day back after the Michigan game, I loved our energy. We had a good film session, had another good film session today leading into the game tomorrow. Our guys continue to come in and prepare the right way, and that’s all I can ask of them at this point is continue to go out here, continue to try to get better, to grow in the areas where we need to be better and hopefully apply that in the game.”
The Huskers will get one more crack at ending the losing streak at home before they hit the road again. Penn State (15-5, 5-4 Big Ten) is coming to town for a Saturday night showdown.
“Now, we’re facing a team that I think is going to play as hard as any we’ve played against to the point,” Hoiberg said. “It’s a team that forces turnovers, they block shots. They’re No. 1 in forcing turnovers; they had 15 steals against Indiana. They’re No. 2 in blocked shots. So we have to do a great job of taking care of the basketball.”
Penn State is giving up 72.7 points per game in Big Ten play, 11th out of 14 teams, but the Nittany Lions are also first in steals and third in blocks. They put opponents at the free-throw line more often than any other team, but the Huskers are last in the Big Ten and 351st out of 353 teams nationally in free-throw percentage at 60%.
Lamar Stevens, a 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward, is Penn State’s primary scorer at 16.7 points per game. He’s struggled to get the 3-point shot to fall (24.6% this season) but he’s tough inside the arc and will be a difficult match-up for an undersized Nebraska front line.
“Lamar Stevens is a load,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a guy that can score, is a facilitator on the break, he’s as explosive getting to the rim as anybody in our league, he’s got great strength and size. They ISO I'm on that left side of the floor and he’s got an array of moves and he can knock down the 3-point shot. He’s a guy that you lose sleep over trying to figure out how you’re going to guard him.”
Sophomore guard Myreon Jones is Penn State’s most dangerous shooter as he’s averaging 13.9 points per game while shooting 39.6% from deep, although that percentage has slipped to 35.4% in Big Ten play.
Mike Watkins, a 6-foot-9, 254-pound fifth-year center, is one of the better shot-blockers in the Big Ten and is putting up 9.8 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game in 22.1 minutes per game this season. Kevin Cross Jr., Nebraska’s back-up five man, is shooting 44.4% from 3 over his last seven games and could play a big role as Nebraska tries to lure Watkins away from the basket.
“I think you saw how open and flowing our offense was the other night against Michigan when Kevin was popping out and taking [Jon] Teske away from the basket,” Hoiberg said. “Penn State does a great job; they rotate to the shooters. It’s a defense that we haven’t seen. You go through it in practice and hopefully you go out and attack it the way that we need to. Kevin draws a lot of attention out there, not only open shots for Kevin, when he can pull a guy like Teske or the two bigs that Penn State has, but it also opens the lane for our cutters and our slashers. We did a really good job of that, especially in the first half, of popping Kevin, slashing guys out of the corners and getting plays at the rim.
“Kevin is a guy that forced the other team to switch their pick-and-roll coverage, and then once they started showing out on him, he did a good job of getting into the pocket and rolling. He’s a very good playmaker in there. Kevin, he’s been phenomenal two of the last there games.”
Cross scored 17 points on 6-of-11 shooting including 3-of-6 from 3 angst both Wisconsin and Michigan, though he had a 2-for-8 shooting, four-point performance against Rutgers sandwiched between those big games. Nebraska needs more consistency out of him, and that’s true for the entire team as the Huskers head into the final 10 games of the regular season.
“It’s the overall consistency; that’s the biggest thing we need to be better at,” Hoiberg said. “Play a full 40 minutes, we’re going to have a chance to close out some of these games as opposed to digging out of a hole when we have a stretch where we’re not playing very well or not doing the things that have been successful for us on the floor. So just continuing to do the things hat have helped us play good basketball.”
The Huskers will try to do that on Saturday at Pinnacle Bank Arena. BTN will televise the game at 6 p.m. CT with Cory Provus and Shon Morris on 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.