Nebraska played its 10th game in 20 days since returning from its COVID-19 pause on Thursday, falling to No. 5 Illinois 86-70. Nebraska is 1-9 in those games with six double-digit losses.
Despite all their struggles and the flurry go games in a short amount of time, Coach Fred Hoiberg said he’s been impressed with the way the team has continued to compete.
“Through adversity, I think our guys have continued to battle through,” Hoiberg said. “I don’t know if any team in the country has more adversity than we have over the course of the season. I’ll say this about our guys: to go out there and continue to compete through it all, that’s one thing I’ve absolutely learned about them is that they’re competitors, that they’re going to continue to go out there and fight and battle whatever schedule they’ve thrown at us. I poured a cup of coffee on the counter this morning; I didn’t put my cup in there. We’re all mentally exhausted right now. But we’ve just got to find a way to continue to dip into the reserves and find energy to go out there in those 40 minutes.”
— Carol Hoiberg (@mayorswife32) February 26, 2021
That being said, Hoiberg said Thursday’s game against the Illini was the first time since Nebraska’s 90-54 blowout loss to Ohio State back on Dec. 30 that he didn’t think the the team had the fire to necessary to compete against a Big Ten opponent. The Huskers fell behind by as much as 21 in the second half against an Illinois team playing without its best player in Ayo Dosunmu, who rescued the Illini from getting upset in Lincoln in the teams’ first meeting on Feb. 12.
Instead of putting them through a tough practice on Friday, Hoiberg sensed the team needed an opportunity to recharge their batteries. Instead of getting up and down, the Huskers got some free throws up and called it a day. Hoiberg mentioned that three of his rotation players probably wouldn’t have been able to go even if they had held a full practice, though he hopes they’ll be ready to play on Saturday.
“I just thought our guys needed a mental break,” Hoiberg said. “We could have gone in there and pounded them about the defensive transition and about the blow-bys and the jumping on our contests, lack of blocking out late in that game, but I just don’t think that would have accomplished anything to pound them into the ground right now just based on everything going on. Just wanted to go out there, try to keep them fresh, get some skill work in and then come back tomorrow morning and try to fix some of the issues that we’ve got going on with our team right now.”
The Huskers held four of their first six opponents since their return to play below 70 points (with Illinois needed overtime to crack that threshold). However, their last four opponents have scored 75 or more including back-to-back 86-point games.
“You look at what we did after the shutdown defensively, four straight opponents we held under 40% field goal percentage,” Hoiberg said. “Right now it’s just too easy and we’re not doing those same things that we were when we came back form the shutdown. Some of it’s lack of practice time, some of it’s fatigue — physically, mentally. But we’ve got to find a way to dig in. Teams aren’t going to feel sorry for you, they’re going to keep coming at you to try to pounce on you. It’s important we find a way to try to go out and compete for 40 minutes.”
Most of Nebraska’s starters have gone through some personal slumps offensively in recent games, but the bench has picked up the slack to a certain degree as different reserves have stepped up at different times.
Senior Kobe Webster has averaged 8.0 points with two double-digit performances while shooting 44.4% from 3 over his last six games. Shamiel Stevenson has scored nine or more in three of his last four games including 12 points on Thursday. Senior Thorir Thorbjarnarson has hit five of his last 10 3-point attempts and has six assists is Nebraska’s last three games. Freshman center Eduardo Andre has carved out a role for himself, playing double-digit minutes in five of Nebraska’s 10 games since returning to play.He scored seven points on Thursday, his high against Division I competition.
“It’s important,” Hoiberg said. “Those starters have obviously played a lot of minutes. It has been great to see Kobe and Thor, the way they’ve shot the ball down the stretch here, to help them hopefully have a good feeling heading into the last part of their senior season. You need production. Eduardo has shown some flashes of being a kid that’s got a really bright future … He’s a confident kid that’s only going to continue to get better and better. So it’s been good to get minutes for Eduardo and continue to see his development. That’s important, it’s an important stretch finishing this season and certainly going into next season. We’d like to end it on a high note. If we can find a way to go out and get a couple wins, that I think would do wonders for this team.”
The Huskers (5-17, 1-14 Big Ten) will look to recapture the fire on Saturday as Minnesota (13-11, 6-11) visits Lincoln for a rematch. Star point guard Marcus Carr dealt with foul trouble in the first half but took over down the stretch with 21 points and eight assists in 19 minutes to lead the Golden Gophers to a 70-61 win in Minneapolis back on Feb. 8.
“It starts with Marcus Carr,” Hoiberg said. “He’s one of the most dynamic players not only in our league, but in the country. They’ve had some incredible wins this year when you look at some of the teams they’ve knocked off in their home building. The start they got off to last night, it was 16-4 early in that game against Northwestern and it got to the point where they got a little fatigued, I think, late in that game and Northwestern, it just shows the depth of our league, how good they are as the 13th record in our league right now … Every night you’ve got to be perfect if you’re going to win. They’re a team that’s had some great wins. They’re coming in on a one-day prep like we are and I think the team that goes out and competes and plays the hardest is going to win the game.”
Minnesota has wins over Iowa, Ohio State and Michigan, but the Gophers have won just two of their last nine games (one of those wins being against Nebraska). They lost to Northwestern 67-59 on Thursday, snapping a 13-game losing streak for the Wildcats. Starting center Liam Robbins was on the bench in a boot during that game, and starting guard Gabe Kalscheur is also out because of an injury.
Tipoff on Saturday is set for 6 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with Brandon Gaudin and John Beilein 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.