Hoops Preview: Nebraska Cornhuskers

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

The surging Nebraska Cornhuskers hit the Crisler Center hardwood tonight, where the Wolverines will look to bounce back from a humbling loss in Bloomington.

Date: Wednesday, Feb. 5

Time: 6:30 ET

Location: Ann Arbor, Mich.--Crisler Center

TV: BTN

Due to time constraints, this preview will be a little shorter than usual, especially since we've already seen the Wolverines take on the Cornhuskers earlier this season.

Season So Far

For an 11-9 squad with a 3-5 conference record, Nebraska has really come on strong of late. But, things the chatter about this year's Nebraska basketball team was not so rosy to start.

The Cornhuskers went 8-4 in the non-conference schedule, with losses to UMass, UAB, Creighton and Cincinnati. Their lone non-conference win against a team in the RPI top 100 came against the Miami Hurricanes (No. 91) in Lincoln on Dec. 4.

Tim Miles's squad started off the Big Ten slate with losses at Iowa (by 10) and a thumping at Ohio State (by 31). As we here all know, the Cornhuskers then very nearly knocked off Michigan at Pinnacle Bank Arena, foiled by a big Derrick Walton bucket at the rim near the end of the game.

Nebraska then lost at Purdue to fall to 0-4 in the Big Ten portion of the schedule. However, they've won three of their last four, with the wins all coming at PBA against Ohio State, Minnesota and Indiana. In those three victories, Terran Petteway averaged a whopping 23.7 points per game, including a dynamite performance against Minnesota, in which he dropped 35 points on 80 percent eFG%.

This is not a game Michigan can take lightly. While the Cornhuskers have yet to win away from home during Big Ten play, they lost at an also sneakily dangerous squad in Penn State by just four points on Jan. 23.

Personnel

Nebraska's offense starts with the playmaking ability of the 6-foot-6 G-F Terran Petteway, who can shoot the lights out while also being able to get to the rim off the bounce, with or without a ball screen. Against Michigan in Lincoln, Petteway scored 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting, an "average" performance by his recent standards. With his 254 field goal attempts, Petteway is by far Nebraska's leading shot attempter. To date, he's shot 40 percent from beyond the arc and 47 percent from the field overall. Simply put, the guy knows how to score the ball. Michigan has to find a way to slow him down in the first half so he can't pick up steam en route to another monster performance.

Shavon Shields is second on the team in points (11.0 ppg). At 6-foot-7, his height and rebounding ability offers a solid one-two punch in tandem with Petteway's overall skill.

You might know Ray Gallegos as "the guy with the greenest light ever." Naturally, he leads the team in three-point attempts (101), and has connected on 38 percent of them. Conversely, he has put up just 31 attempts from inside the arc. In short, he's your standard three-point gunner whom you can't leave open; if he's on, he's the type of guy who can be the difference in Nebraska's potential upset bid.

As for the bigs, 6-foot-10 F Walter Pitchford--out of Grand Rapids, Mich.--puts up 8.3 ppg and 4.4 rpg, including 13- and 11-point efforts against Minnesota and Indiana, respectively. Despite being a big guy, he is also unafraid to let it fly from beyond the arc--he's connected on 39 percent of his 69 three-point attempts this season. Petteway should obviously be the main focus of Michigan's defensive efforts, but they also don't want to get Pittsnoggled by Pitchford.

Also of note: Tim Miles dismissed Deverell Biggs, the team's third-leading scorer, on Jan. 28--he averaged 9.9 ppg, including 14 points on 5-for-7 shooting against Michigan on Jan. 9.

Freshman G Tai Webster averages 5.6 ppg (4.0 ppg in Big Ten play), but shoots just 34 percent from the field and 21 percent from three (albeit on just 24 attempts). It has been a tough freshman season for Webster, who hails from Auckland, New Zealand. At 6-foot-4, he does have solid size for a guard, and could be a factor on the defensive end--Webster picked up two steals against both Minnesota and Indiana.

Game Keys

  • Check Petteway. This is one of those "easier said than done" keys, but Petteway has been the driving force behind Nebraska's recent surge. Limit him to somewhere around 15 points--as opposed to the whopping 35 he put up on the Gophers--and Michigan should be able to grind its way to a win, even if they have another uncharacteristically poor night from the field.
  • Pick and roll defense. Michigan had serious trouble, at times, of defending Petteway et al on the pick and roll the first time around. Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford's ability to bother the ball handler with a solid hard hedge will go a long way toward limiting Nebraska's ability to get into the paint with ease.
  • Three point defense. After the Indiana game, all everyone wanted to talk about was the offense and Nik Stauskas's struggles. With that said, the defense cannot allow Petteway (or even Gallegos) to go off like Yogi Ferrell did in Bloomington on Sunday. Of course, Michigan didn't "allow" Ferrell to do what he did: he simply just played out of his mind. That will happen at times, but Michigan can't let it happen again, especially at home. I put allow Michigan's offense should bounce back after putting up a performance that reminded everyone of the Duke game; that said, defense will have to be the first order of business tonight.

Outlook

With a fairly brutal four-game stretch coming up for the Wolverines, they simply cannot afford to lose this game.

After building up a reputation as a typical Big Ten grind-it-out squad under Doc Sadler, Tim Miles has the Cornhuskers playing fast. In fact, during conference play, Nebraska ranks first in the Big Ten in possessions per 40 minutes. Meanwhile, Michigan sits dead last at 12th; as such, the Wolverines will want to pick their spots to run, but try to keep things slow more often than not. Fewer possessions equals fewer opportunities for Petteway to do his defense eviscerating thing, and thus a greater chance of victory for Michigan.

If we've learned anything this Big Ten season, it's that no team is immune to The Upset, even at home. The Wolverines' pick and roll defense has to be better, and, yes, Nik Stauskas has to get part of the way back to his previously world-destroying ways.

Predictions about Big Ten basketball these days are about as useful as automobiles in the snowy Midwest without four-wheel drive. With that said, Michigan should get the win, and I think they probably will.

But, there's no room for certainty in 2013-14 Big Ten basketball.

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