Huskers View Wisconsin as a Must-Win at Start of Treacherous Stretch
Photo Credit: Aaron Babcock

Huskers View Wisconsin as a Must-Win at Start of Treacherous Stretch

January 08, 2018

The college basketball season has reached a midway point, it’s cold and gloomy outside, and inside, classes are starting up again. The Huskers (11-6, 2-2 Big Ten) are tired, they’re going through a tough stretch on offense (39.5 percent from the field in the last three) and they just dropped a game they felt was there for the taking.

“[Purdue coach] Matt Painter says that game was there for the taking and that’s kind of the way I feel. We just didn’t do enough,” head coach Tim Miles said Monday afternoon with his team looking to turn the page on a 74-62 loss to Purdue on Saturday and preparing for a Tuesday tilt with Wisconsin (9-8, 2-2 Big Ten). 

“It’s always disappointing to lose, especially when you do it to yourself,” he said. “We know Purdue is really good, there’s no doubt Purdue is really good but I do believe in our guys.”

So, are there moral victories to be had from just running out of steam late?

“I’m not really into moral victories, those don’t get you into the tournament,” guard Anton Gill said. “We don’t have time to hang our heads, we just have to make sure we’re ready.”

That feels like sort of an understatement. The Huskers are getting ready to enter a stretch where they play four games in ten days: the Badgers on Tuesday, at 12-5 Penn State on Friday, 10-7 Illinois on Jan. 15 and 14-3 Michigan on Jan. 18.

“Basketball’s not an even product,” Miles said. “With the length of the season, the amount of games, the way the schedule is. I mean, we have four games in 10 days. You think we’re going to play great every game? No. I hope we do and I hope we go out and win every game but at the same time, it’s an ever-changing product.”

That means at some point in these next 10 days, the Huskers will have a one-day prep before a game. They’ve already had one in the run-up to Wisconsin. Miles said the staff gave the team Sunday off and they’ll only get live-action practice for, at most, an hour-and-a-half Monday. 

Coach isn’t a fan, but the players don’t seem to mind.

“That way Miles can’t keep us in practice for three hours,” Gill quipped. “It makes it easy because you get another crack at it. You get that bad taste out of your mouth. That helps a lot.”

Forward Isaiah Roby said virtually the same: he’d rather play a game that matters than have seven days of practice.

“This is where you find out if you’re a good team or not,” Gill said. “If you can come out of this with a positive record, if you can you’ll have a chance at the tournament and if you can’t, you’ll just be another mediocre team so we have to find a way to get it done.”

Up first? The Badgers, Big Ten Player of the Year darkhorse Ethan Happ and a stingy defense. Wisconsin is surrendering 65.1 points a game to opponents this season (No. 36 nationally) and effectively running teams off the 3-point line (15.1 attempts against per game). With Happ, averaging 16.8 points (56.6 percent) and 8.4 rebounds, they have a matchup nightmare big man who can run an offense or bully a defense on the block.

“He’s physical, but he’s also really skilled,” Roby said. “He’s not the most smooth guy so it’s tough to guard him because he’s going to have you off balance all the time. In the post, he’s got every move in the book.

“It’s going to be a challenge to stay in the game, stay in the right mindset for us — all the bigs that are going to be guarding him — and then as a whole the team is going to have to take turns locking him down because it’s not going to be just one guy that’s on him.”

Limiting Happ figures to be a major key to a Nebraska victory. And even though Wisconsin isn’t the same Wisconsin from years past, Miles still views this a must-win game for his Huskers.

“Last year this was a team that beat us on our home court in overtime,” Miles said. “We need to be able to stay on the front end of this [Big Ten race]. Right now we’re in a five-way tie for whatever place at 2-2 and you’re going one of two directions, right? Up or down. I think that makes this a very important game.”

Other news and notes

>> Despite not playing him a single minute in the second half against Purdue, Miles said there are no plans to bench center Jordy Tshimanga moving forward.

“I’m going to roll Jordy out there, he’s a guy I’ve invested in,” Miles said. "We did it with Tai Webster his freshman year and saw it through to the end and went to the NCAA tournament. I’ve got that same bullish attitude about Jordy. The guys want Jordy to do well, they want to be able to throw it into him and let him make a play.”

Miles could opt to give more minutes to his small-ball lineup, with Roby at the five and Isaac Copeland playing the four spot. It’s a unit that has given teams, including Purdue and Kansas a few weeks ago, trouble. But Miles has no plans to change things up. He’s also not having to worry about massaging egos either, Roby is fine coming off the bench.

“I don’t care,” Roby said about whether he’s starting or not. “My minutes are up. If I’m playing, it doesn’t matter if I start or come in at the end. It doesn’t matter to me. I believe in the coaches, whatever they think is the best, that’s what I’m going to do so if they start whoever, that’s fine by me.”

>> Miles had an interesting line about home-court advantage in modern college basketball.

“The home-court advantage used to be like, they’d say in the old days, it’d be like 10 points,” he said. “Then they started doing the math on it and it was like four-and-a-half or five points, and now they’ve got every team and we’re actually still one of the better ones in the country at four.

“But, really your advantage is like a bucket. It’s not a great advantage but at the same time, I think the advantage is the energy of your players, the fact you’ve got fans lifting them up and making them feel more confident.”

>> That rough stretch, four games in 10 days? It’s coming after a long layoff for winter break. The Huskers have had two extremes in the last few weeks, but Roby said the coaching staff has managed their work and their time well.

“The coaches did a good job over the break of not letting us sit around at home all day,” he said. “They had us here all day. We’d lift in the morning and then have a team meal and have practice and come back again for a film session or something. They’ve done a good job of just keeping us busy and not letting us get into super lazy mode.”

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