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Nebraska Basketball

Padding the Stats: In-State Matchup a Big Opportunity for Nebraska

December 7, 2018
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The hype for Saturday’s in-state showdown between Nebraska and Creighton took a bit of a hit after Wednesday’s collapse at Minnesota. Instead of turning their attention immediately to the Bluejays after the game, many fans took the time to have a mini-meltdown after the Huskers’ second loss of the year.

While that kind of reaction is probably a bit much — all of Nebraska’s goals are very much still attainable — I think it was probably a response to the raised expectations and seeing the Huskers lose in a similar way to how they've lost time and time again: offensive dysfunction (among other problems against the Gophers). Nebraska was sitting at 68 points with 8:42 to play and they made just three more field goals and scored just 10 points the rest of the way.

Still, even with that lost, Saturday’s game hasn’t lost much of its luster. In fact, the game might be even more important now.

It’s a chance to prove these aren’t the same old Huskers.

Everyone knows the numbers by now. The Huskers have lost seven straight to the Bluejays including the only two meetings at Pinnacle Bank Arena to this point. Creighton coach Greg McDermott is 14-0 in his career against Tim Miles. 

In 2014-15 — the year following Doug McDermott’s graduation and Nebraska’s last NCAA Tournament appearance — the Huskers entered the season with plenty of hype. Creighton won at the Vault by 10 and the Huskers went on to win eight more games the rest of the way (while Creighton only won seven more).

Last season, with two established stars in Marcus Foster and Khyri Thomas and a new-look Huskers team featuring a pair of transfers in James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr., the Huskers put up a good fight in Omaha before ultimately losing once again.

This year was shaping up to be Nebraska’s best chance at a win since Miles arrived in Lincoln. It’s at Pinnacle Bank Arena. Nebraska has it’s most talented roster in some time while the Jays lost both Foster and Thomas and have a roster littered with freshmen and sophomores playing big roles. The Jays showed their youth in a big way early on, struggling to pull out wins against Western Illinois and East Tennessee State.

Then Creighton went to the Cayman Islands, won a tournament title (thanks to a win over Clemson, a team Nebraska also beat) and found itself. It doesn’t look like the Jays are going to be overmatched on Saturday like it did just two weeks ago, while Nebraska just stubbed its toe against an unranked team.

Heading into Wednesday’s game, CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish — who ranks the top 25 teams (and one more) in the country on a daily basis — had Creighton at 20 and Nebraska at 21 in his rankings. The loss dropped Nebraska out of Parrish’s rankings on Thursday, but that still shows how close these two teams are perceived to be.

In the more traditional polls, Nebraska is ranked No. 24 and No. 25 in the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll, respectively. Creighton is among those also receiving votes in both polls, sitting at 31 and 29.

However you boil it down, this looks to be as closely matched as these two teams have been in some time (outside of 2014 when neither team was good), which should make for a great game. No matter who comes out on top, this game should be a quality win to add to that team’s resumé, which is another reason why this is a big game. To this point, the best win for both teams is probably Clemson, a team who made the Sweet 16 last year and brought most of their major contributors back but fell out of the rankings after the two losses.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of this match-up is how the two teams are almost polar opposites of each other. Nebraska has a top-five defense, Creighton has a top-15 offense. The Huskers are at their best in the paint and at the free-throw line while the Jays are second in the country in 3-point percentage. Nebraska relies heavily on its starters, Creighton has gone at least 10 deep in all eight games.

This showdown will pit strength against strength. Opponents have only made 37 total 3-pointers against the Huskers in nine games; Creighton has knocked down 37 3s over the course of its last three games and is at 92 makes for the season at a 45.8 percent clip. Which side dictates the ice and style of play?

There are so many story lines surrounding this game, but one that hasn’t been relevant until this year, for the most part, is the recruiting angle. Nebraska has put an emphasis on in-state recruiting moving forward, something the Jays have been very successful with over the years with the likes of NBA Draft picks Justin Patton (Omaha North) and Thomas (Omaha Benson) since the school joined the Big East and several others while it was still in the Missouri Valley.

For the first time in a long time, the Huskers have a Nebraska native on their roster in freshman center Brady Heiman (Platteview). Nebraska has Akol Arop (Omaha Creighton Prep) signed for 2019 and Donovan Williams (Lincoln North Star) committed for 2020. Creighton has Shereef Mitchell (Omaha Burke) signed for 2019; he’s spending a post-grad year at Sunrise Christian Academy first. None of those players held an offer from the other school.

The class of 2021 is a different story, however, and is shaping up to be a big-time battle between the two in-state schools as well as others from around the country. Hunter Sallis, a 6-foot-3 wing from Millard North, already holds offers from both Nebraska and Creighton as well as Ole Miss, Iowa State and Drake. Chucky Hepburn, a 6-foot point guard from Bellevue West, only has an offer from Nebraska at this point but Creighton is tracking him as well and has already had him on campus.

Bellevue West and Millard North both have games on Saturday, so it’s unlikely either prospect will be able to attend Saturday’s game, but you better believe the victor will make sure both players hear about how the game went. Winning this game (or next year’s, or the one after that) isn’t going to sway the kids one way or the other come decision day, but taking (or maintaining) control in the series certainly won’t hurt. It’s about establishing one’s program as a viable landing spot where local kids can have success and develop. Creighton has been that place in recent years and now Nebraska is playing catch-up.

On top of everything else, bragging rights for the fan bases for the next year are on the line as always, and both sides certainly love to talk.

In the grand scheme of things, Saturday’s game is just one of 31 on the schedule. A win doesn’t punch a ticket to the tournament and a loss doesn’t mean it’s time to start looking ahead to next year. Even so, there is a lot riding on Saturday’s game. It’s a chance for the Huskers to prove they aren’t the same old Huskers. It’s a chance to get that gorilla off the program’s back (and Miles’ too). 

Pinnacle Bank Arena better bring its A-game. That place should be electric on Saturday evening.

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Padding the Stats: In-State Matchup a Big Opportunity for Nebraska

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