After a 7-1 start to the season, Nebraska jumped into the latest AP Poll for the first time since 2014. The Huskers are sitting at No. 24 after Sunday’s 75-60 win over Illinois to open conference play.
“The coaches are a lot smarter,” Coach Tim Miles said. “They had us ranked a month ago. It’s a great thing for recruiting but honestly it’s so early in the year that it doesn’t hold a lot of weight in terms of how we view it. It’s great, I think it’s a measure of how well the kids have played and they’ve won some important games and we just need to keep going with it, keep building on it.”
The Huskers will look to build on that ranking with a mid-week trip to Minneapolis to take on Minnesota Wednesday night. The Gophers are off to a 6-2 start to the season but are coming off a 79-59 loss to Ohio State.
“Very aggressive team, rebound the ball very well, they get in transition a lot so we just have to make sure we talk that out and take care of them on the 3-point line,” senior point guard Glynn Watson Jr. said.
The Golden Gophers brought back a strong core with double-double machine Jordan Murphy and talented wing Amir Coffey and are starting two freshmen as well thanks in part to a preseason injury to center Eric Curry.
“They’ve got a couple young kids too that have cracked the lineup,” Miles said. “I’m impressed with them. They’re a better home team than they are on the road; they have not performed well, and that’s not uncommon. It’s hard to win on the road. As you look at this, this is an important game for us. Minnesota’s going to be aggressive. They’re coming off two out of three losses, I think, and they haven’t played at home for a long time so our guys will have to be ready to meet that challenge.”
Wednesday will be Nebraska’s first conference road game after taking down the Illini at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday. Nebraska has already made one true road trip, winning at Clemson, but a game at Williams Arena will be a little different.
“When the Gophers are playing well, it’s very difficult because it carries so much noise and it’s a unique environment,” Miles said. “It’s truly built like a barn, hence its nickname. The raised floor, and thank goodness it’s about a foot-and-a-half lower than it used to be; I used to be scared up there, I’d get like vertigo. But at the same time, when you look at this, our guys, we blasted music all day today to make them communicate and talk to each other in a difficult environment. I think they’ll be ready for the challenge.”
The Gophers have struggled in a lot of areas offensively, but they are strong on the offensive glass and even better at getting to the foul line. Murphy, a 6-foot-6 senior power forward, and Coffey, a 6-foot-8 junior wing who has been playing some point guard for the Gophers this year, are attempting a combined 14.2 free throws per game.
“It was the first or second thing in the scouting report today, was talking about playing without fouling,” Miles said. “They force the issue. You’ve got to be really strong in the paint. I thought Ohio State did a great job in the lane. I don’t know what the paint points were that game but I would assume that Ohio State won them because they were really strong in the paint. If you’re not, Minnesota can really hurt you. I think that’s important, and that’s important with rebounding, box-outs, coming up with the ball — you kind of get in a fist-fight down there a little bit, take one in the chops, a little one to the kidney, and you’ve got to be in there and play strong. If we can go in and do what we do and stay out of that foul trouble, that’s important, I think, as a key to the game.”
Junior forward Isaiah Roby has been the Husker who has had to deal with foul trouble the most this season — and throughout his career. He’ll be tasked with defending freshman center Daniel Oturu (a 4-star recruit), back-up center Matz Stockman (a 7-footer) and Murphy depending on lineups, and he’ll have to cut back on the dumb fouls in order to stay on the court.
“The ones we want to eliminate are just like the reaches and that stuff,” Miles said. “It’s bad enough he gets phantom fouls sometimes, it’s bad enough that he’s mismatched sometimes — it’s good on offense, bad on defense — but we need him to stay in the game.”
The only regular rotation player for the Gophers shooting better than 33.3 percent from 3 is freshman Gabe Kalscheur who is hitting nearly three triples per game at a 53.5 percent clip. The 6-foot-4 sharp-shooter only managed to get one 3 off against Ohio State — a miss — and the team as a whole went 0-for-13 as a result.
Miles said he feels good about where the Huskers are at heading into Wednesday’s match-up.
“I thought we had a very good practice today,” Miles said. “I thought our film session was excellent, guys were attentive. But you still have to go out there and get punched in the mouth, discover if you like the taste of your own blood or if you want to spit it out on your opponent, how you’re going to handle all those things. That’s an ongoing challenge but I like where they’re at right now.”
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. CT on BTN.
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.