The 2020-21 regular season has been a chaotic one for the Huskers, featuring a three-week-long pause on team activities, a bunch of make-up games squeezed into the last month and a 3-16 record in conference play.
All that is in the past now, however, as the Huskers prepare to depart for the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis.
“The regular season’s over and we can’t dwell on anything that we’ve done in the regular season,” junior forward Derrick Walker said. “Since that’s come to an end, we’re 0-0 now and everything moving forward counts. This is when it counts — you win and you keep playing, you lose and you go home. Now it’s just about mindset and having heart. We’ve just got to come out each game doing our best to win and not put ourselves in a hole.”
The Huskers are the No. 14 seed and will face a familiar opponent in No. 11 Penn State who the Huskers have played twice in the last few weeks. Nebraska won at Penn State 62-61 on a layup by Teddy Allen with 12 seconds to go on Feb. 12, and the Huskers fell to the Nittany Lions in Lincoln 86-83 on Feb. 23 despite a 41-point, eight-rebound, six-assist performance from Allen.
“As we put in the game plan just a little bit ago in practice, you start talking about the coverages and then the guys were like ‘Oh yeah, I remember that and I remember this guy,’” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You watch the personnel on who they are and what they’re about and you just have to go out and play the principles. We didn’t guard them very well in our last game after guarding them maybe as well as any team that we played all year in the last 10 minutes of the win at Penn State. It’s a tough, tough team.”
Penn State (10-13, 7-12 Big Ten) closed the season with back-to-back wins over Minnesota and Maryland while the Huskers dropped their last two, against Iowa and Northwestern.
“We actually had very similar games [on Sunday],” Hoiberg said. “We both kind of dug ourselves a hole yesterday, came back from 15, 16-point deficits, took leads; the difference is they held on, they found a way to win theirs and unfortunately we couldn’t make the necessary plays down the stretch in ours.”
Penn State is averaging 70.8 points in Big Ten play and is shooting 33.2% on 25.7 3-point attempts per game. The Nittany Lions are first in offensive rebounds (12.3 per game) and second in steals (7.6 per game). Penn State shot 14-of-37 from 3 in Penn State’s win against Nebraska with Myron Jones (6-of-12, 29 points overall) leading the way.
“I think Jim Ferry’s done a terrific job with this group,” Hoiberg said. “They shoot the ball very well. [John] Harrar obviously has killed us on the glass — he’s got 14 offensive rebounds in two games. We have to do a better job of closing to shooters, getting back in transition and find a way to compete on the glass. If we do that, we’ll have a chance.”
In Penn State’s win in Lincoln, Harrar — a 6-foot-9, 240-pound senior — had a double-double with 10 points and 14 rebounds, eight of which were on offense. Penn State out-scored Nebraska 16-3 in second-chance points and Harrar was the biggest reason for that.
“That’s my matchup,” Walker said. “I take that personally. Even if all 14 weren’t on me, I fell like they were on me. So for me, I have to go into that game knowing that I have to outplay my man, I have to outplay my matchup and I have to keep him off the boards in order for us to have a chance of winning that game. For me that’s just my biggest focus is my matchup, doing my job, my responsibility. Even if I limit him to one or two offensive rebounds, that’s good for me for a guy that averages five. Just keeping him off the boards as much as I can. That’s going to be my biggest focus.”
The Huskers are opening the tournament against one of the three Big Ten teams they’ve beaten this season, but Walker said the team is focused more on themselves then who they’re playing.
“We’re 1-1, but honestly, if it wasn’t Penn State I honestly feel like we can beat anyone,” Walker said. “We hung in with the No. 6 team in the country in Illinois and we hung in with a lot of other good teams. So for us, I think it’s about how we play and how we focus on ourselves. If we make the game about us, we’re going to win. If we’re moving the ball, if we’re playing together, if we’re playing good defense, we’re going to win. It’s about us at the end of the day. Yes you have to focus on the other team, but if we’re playing our game I’ll take our chances.”
One sign for optimism is Nebraska’s improved shooting down the stretch as the Huskers have shot better than 42% from 3 in four of their last eight games. In Big Ten play, Kobe Webster and Trey McGowens are both shooting 38.5% from deep while Lat Mayen is at 36.7%. Thorir Thorbjarnarson has also made eight 3s in his last seven games after hitting eight in hist first 19 games combined.
“I think a big part of it is we’re making simple plays,” Hoiberg said. “We’re making the right reads. I think Trey has slowed down a little bit and he’s done a good job of getting our guys shots, Thor has been phenomenal in getting our guys shots. The shooting percentages have gone up and a big part of that, as I’ve said all year long, is confidence, when you can take that lid off that basket and see the ball go through that hoop …
“Just to be able to go out there and play with that kind of confidence, it makes a world of difference as opposed to when that thing’s not going through, and it’s hard to play — believe me, I know this as much as anybody, it’s hard to play this game when you don’t have confidence. To be able to knock down a few and get on a little bit of a roll and a little bit of a rhythm has done wonders for our shooting numbers. Now we’ve got to get back to guarding again; if we can combine the two of them, we’ll really have a chance.”
Nebraska will tip off tournament play on Big Ten Network Wednesday night, 25 minutes after the conclusion of No. 12 Northwestern versus No. 13 Minnesota.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.