Nebraska earned a few days off to celebrate with family after its win against Queens last week, but the Huskers returned to campus in time to squeeze in a few days of practice ahead of Thursday’s game against Iowa.
“It’s a good break,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said on Wednesday. “It’s always a little bit of an, I guess, interesting time for your team and see what kind of shape they’re in when they come back. You can tell the guys that did some things and some guys that sat and did nothing, which some of them needed it, they needed to get their bodies a nice break heading into this run that we’re about to start with tomorrow with a very good and talented Iowa team, with 18 straight league games.
“The guys have been good. I think they’ve been as sharp as they can be coming off a layoff like we had and it’s important that we come out and play a full 40 minutes of basketball.”
The eight days off for Christmas is the last extended break of the season. The longest layoff between games Nebraska has remaining is five days in late February. The Huskers head into the bulk of conference play sitting at 7-6 overall including 0-2 in league play.
“It’s that point in the season now where things are real, conference is starting and obviously we’ve already had two conference games and they didn’t go like we wanted them to go,” Lincoln native Sam Griesel said. “So it’s go time now. It’s good to kind of recharge the batteries, if you will. It was nice for me personally because I was already home, didn’t have to waste any time on travel. But it was really good to get away for a few days and then by Christmas day, we were all ready to get back in the gym and just be back together as one.”
Iowa dropped its final game before the break to Eastern Illinois as a 31.5-point favorite (92-83), but reinforcements are on the way as Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said leading scorer Kris Murray (19.4 points and 10.1 rebounds per game while shooting 37.8% from 3) and veteran reserve Connor McCaffery (7.5 points and 2.5 assist per game while shooting 39.4% from 3) have been practicing and will likely play on Thursday. Murray missed the last four games while McCaffery was unavailable for the Eastern Illinois game.
“It sounds like they’re going to be full strength and when Iowa is at full strength with Murray and McCaffrey back in the lineup, they’re an incredibly dangerous team and I think you’ve seen that with some of the wins that they’ve had over some very good opponents,” Hoiberg said. “So it’s important for us to continue to go out there and do everything we can defensively to give ourselves a chance and hopefully execute on the offensive end. It’s a very talented team. Kris Murray is averaging 20 points, being out of the lineup the last four; he’s just like his brother was a year ago. They’ve done a phenomenal job with their development and it’s a team that has got a lot of veteran leadership on it as well. So we’re really going to have to be on point if we’re going to have a chance.”
Iowa (8-4, 0-1 Big Ten) is ranked 37th in KenPom thanks primarily to a top-10 offense. The Hawkeyes are 38th nationally in adjusted tempo and eight in average possession length. They play fast and do so without giving the ball away, ranking eighth nationally with a 14.8% turnover rate.
Patrick McCaffery (6-foot-9, 210 pounds) is second behind Murray (6-foot-8, 220 pounds) in scoring at 14.3 per game. Five man Flip Rebraca (6-foot-9, 230 pounds) isn’t far behind at 14.0 point and 8.3 rebounds per gam while shooing 62.4% from the field. Tony Perkins (6-foot-4, 205 pounds) runs the point, averaging 11.5 points and 3.2 assists while sophomore Payton Sandfort (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) is chipping in 9.5 points per game despite finding himself in an extended shooting slump (23.3% from deep on the season).
“They stress you everywhere,” Hoiberg said. “They’re so good in transition, that’s where it starts. They get the ball up in a hurry whether it’s a make or a miss and the initial flow and thrust that they have is as good as anybody in the country. And then they’ve got so many weapons. Everybody on the floor can shoot it. Rebraca is having a heck of a year in the post; you can see he’s extended his range as well, stepping out and hitting some 3s this year, but he’s been so efficient on the block and you see what he’s done the last four games has been really impressive.
“It’s just a team that can hurt you from so many different ways. The other key is on the glass; they’ve got a lot of length across the board. They start 6-9 in their frontcourt, three of them. Again, we’re going to have to finish off possessions. Hopefully we start to possession well, but it’s very important that we finish it off with a two-hand physical rebound.”
Iowa is 77th nationally with a 32.7% offensive rebounding rate and the Hawkeyes do most of their damage inside the arc, shooting 54.4%on 2s (53rd nationally), accounting for more than half their scoring.
“Their frontcourt obviously, [stands out[“ Griesel said. “They start three guys that are pretty much 6-9 or taller, so their length and physicality. It’s Nebraska versus Iowa, it’s a rivalry game, so we’ll be ready. We know it’s going to be a war out there, but we’re just really excited to finally get back out there in front of Husker nation.”
Griesel compared the Iowa game to the rivalry with Creighton and said he’s grateful for the opportunity to start the second part of the season at the friendly confines of Pinnacle Bank Arena coming off the break. Wednesday’s game is sold out and Griesel is hoping to see a similar atmosphere to the Purdue game from earlier in the season.
“It’s a little different when you’re on the floor, and you experience something like that versus in the crowd, because I’ve been to some Nebraska games and obviously some of them have been great environments,” Griesel said. “But that was special. It was a really cool moment for me and I’m hoping obviously Husker nation shows out tomorrow and it’s even louder than the Purdue game, obviously, and we’re just excited to kind of rally around that energy and that crowd when they’re loud and helping us out, cheering us on. It just helps us so much.”
Whereas Iowa is expected to be at full strength, the status of one Huskers is still up in the air. Reserve center Blaise Keita is questionable after rolling his ankle against Queens before the break.
“He’s done a little bit, not a lot, so we’ll get him through shoot-around tomorrow, see how he reacts to that and then make a final decision if he’s going to get minutes tomorrow night,” Hoiberg said. “Hopefully he can go; if not, other guys are going to have to be ready to step up. Oleg [Kojenets], we like a lot of the things that he’s done. He may have opportunities as we go along whether we’re full strength or not just because of the size and the physicality that we’re going to see every night.”
According to BartTorvik, Nebraska’s adjusted defensive efficiency since Derrick Walker rejoined the lineup has been good for 52nd nationally — good enough to win games. In order for Nebraska to make strides in conference play, the offense has to improve, particularly from the 3-point line where Nebraska is currently 318th in the country at 29.7%.
“I certainly think we can shoot the ball better,” Hoiberg said. “I think we’re shooting about 30%, a little bit under, on 3s. Hopefully that number increases. The defenses we’re going to face are only going to get better. But we’re going to have to shoot the ball better if we’re going to have any chance of winning consistently.
“It’s about making the right plays. I did like the pace, I liked our efficiency the last time we got out and played. We didn’t shoot the 3 great but I thought we got the ball in the right guys’ hands and had a good offensive game. It’s been a big point of emphasis the last four days is really getting after it and playing with great pace and purpose on the offensive end and hopefully that carries over tomorrow.”
Tipoff on Thursday is set for 6 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with Jeff Levering and Robbie Hummel 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.