Much of Nebraska’s success in the last five games has been the result of improved offensive play, particularly from the 3-point line. However, Sunday’s win against Maryland more closely resembled the team’s wins from before the season-ending injuries to its two best defenders.
Nebraska held Maryland to 66 points (in 45 minutes) and 33.3% shooting. The Terrapins’ top three scorers on the season — Jahmir Young, Hakim Hart and Donta Scott — combined for 35 points on 45 field goal attempts, and Nebraska used some key defensive plays to seal the victory.
The Huskers had to change a lot of what they were doing after Juwan Gary and Emmanuel Bandoumel went down, and it wasn’t pretty early. However, Coach Fred Hoiberg said the team is getting better on that end of the floor.
“I give Jamarques [Lawrence] a lot of credit for guarding the ball; that was such a huge part of what we were doing early was Emmanuel’s ability to stay in front of his man guarding the point guard, and Jamarques has done a really good job of that,” Hoiberg said. “I thought Sam [Hoiberg] did a good job of that against Young our last game.
“We’ve thrown some different defenses out there. It’s pretty rare you’re going to throw three different zone defenses and get it in the middle of the season and be perfect. It’s just really designed to steal possessions out there and when you lose not only Emmanuel, but Juwan, and Blaise [Keita] has been hurt through a lot of that — probably your three best defenders right there with those three guys. So we had to find a way to steal possessions and that was what the change was designed to do. Our guys have worked at it and they’ve watched film on it. Every day we put an edit on their laptops and, to a man, they all go back and watch it. So it’s been a really fun group to coach because of how bought in they’ve been on everything that we’ve thrown at them.”
Nebraska will look to keep things rolling with the second of three straight home games as Nebraska hosts Minnesota on Saturday. For the first time since perhaps the first meeting with the Golden Gophers, Nebraska is favored to win — by a whopping 11 points, according to KenPom. This is a new position for the Huskers to be in, but one Hoiebrg said won’t impact their preparation.
“We just have to have the exact same approach as what we’ve had,” Hoiberg said. “That doesn’t change, it hasn’t changed all season regardless of what has happened with our team, what kind of streak we’ve been on. We’ve certainly been through both and you just have to keep going and be resilient in your preparation.”
The Gophers (7-19) followed up that overtime loss to Nebraska on Jan. 7 with a win at Ohio State — their only conference win thus far. Minnesota has lost 11 straight and 15 of 16 overall in Big Ten play.
“This is a very talented team that’s been close,” Hoiberg said. “Last night, in the second half, Maryland went on a big run, but they got off to a really good start last night. They lost in a single-digit game at Illinois, which is tough to do; had a chance to take a lead with five minutes left against Penn State. It’s a team that, since they’ve gotten [Dawson] Garcia back, is playing stretches of really good basketball.
“Those two bigs pose problems, and you see what [Pharrell] Payne has been doing and how he’s progressing in his freshman year. They’re playing a lot of young players that are very good and getting better. [Joshua] Ola-Joseph, I think, has a heck of a bright future. All their young players have played very good basketball and they continue to get better each game, each time they step on the floor. So it’s important for us to continue to go out and not get complacent.”
Garcia is averaging 15.5 points and 6.5 rebounds at 6-foot-11 and 230 pounds, and he has the ability so stretch it out to the 3-point line. He had 19 points and 15 rebounds before fouling out against the Huskers in Minneapolis.
Freshmen Payne (6-foot-9, 255 pounds) and Ola-Joseph (6-foot-7, 215 pounds) are both averaging just under eight points, and the latter scored 12 points against the Huskers in the first meeting.
Jamison Battle is second on the team in scoring this season at 12.9 points per game, though he’s struggled from deep this season. He led Minnesota with 20 points in the first game against Nebraska but it took him 21 shots to get there. Transfer point guard Ta’Lon Cooper is contributing 9.8 points and 5.9 assists per game while shooting 37.8% from 3.
Unfortunately, Nebraska may not be at full strength on Saturday as Keita aggravated the ankle injury that sidelined or limited him for about a month and a half. He played important, impactful minutes in the wins against Wisconsin and Maryland before tweaking the ankle in overtime on Sunday.
“Blaise is still pretty sore and I’m not sure what we’re going to have out of him,” Hoiberg said. “He’ll certainly continue to get treatments around the clock and we’ll see how he feels on Saturday morning. But he has not done anything in practice the last couple of days and they pose some problems with bigger lineups. They’ll play Battle at the three, they’ll play Garcia at the four and Payne at the five so we just have to go out there whatever lineup is thrown at us and continue to compete. That’s been the thing that I’ve been impressed with with our group, it’s been the message to this group to just continue to go out and do the things that have made us a solid basketball team these last couple of weeks.”
Lawrence also left the Maryland game with a minor injury, but returned later on and has been a full participant in practice this week as Nebraska has five days between games — both a blessing and a curse.
“We’ve played a lot of games in a short amount of time, and when you’re in a good rhythm you do kind of like games stacking on top of each other,” Hoiberg said. “The one thing this is allowing us is a little time for Jamarques and Blaise to hopefully get healthy for the stretch run. The bye games at the end of the year usually isn’t ideal; you want that more middle the season where you can catch your breath and then get ready for the stretch run. To have it before the last couple of games and then after Michigan State, I think we get another five days before we play Iowa in the finale.
“So it’s not ideal, but you play the schedule that’s given to you and hopefully, again, this does give our guys a chance, because we do have guys playing heavy minutes. We track their loads after every game and they were the highest they’ve been after the Maryland game, so it does give us a little bit of a chance to step back. We had a day off and then the next day was all skill work. We had a good film edit that game of things we need to continue to be better at. And then the last couple days have been all about putting in the game plan and getting ready for Saturday.”
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 2:30 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with Connor Onion and Shon Morris on the call.
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.