While no Big Ten road game is expected to be breeze, three weeks ago, Michigan was projected to be a sizable favorite at Nebraska this Saturday. The Huskers were 8-8 overall and had lost their first three conference games. Since then, though, they have been on a tear, winning four straight games which includes a huge upset of Michigan State in East Lansing earlier this week. Accordingly, tomorrow's game now is viewed very much as a toss-up and could go either way.
On that note, I spoke with Patrick Gerhart, who is an editor and basketball writer for Corn Nation -- SB Nation's Nebraska team site. We discussed why the Huskers have come on strong in the past few weeks, what Michigan needs to do to contain their two best scorers (Andrew Whit and Shavon Shields), whether they have the perimeter defense to bother Michigan's three-point shooters, and which team will on Saturday.
After opening the Big Ten season with three straight losses, Nebrasketball is rolling. The Huskers have won four straight games, beating up on three weak Big Ten teams before edging Michigan State in East Lansing. Thus, they have shot up from #143 to #77 on KenPom in two weeks. Why are they suddenly playing so well? What changed?
Yeah, that was quite the jump there. None of us could have told you that Nebraska would be playing as well as they are right now. It’s not like Nebraska has had trouble with injuries, academics, or illness this year. I think a lot of it has to do with how young the team is. There are a handful of upperclassmen, but none of them have been able to bring the team together night in and night out to pull off a strong win.
Right now you’re seeing experienced upperclassmen and new freshmen finally playing together. I think a lot of Nebraska's early struggles was guys not sure of their role on the team and the inability to then pull themselves out of holes. If you look at a lot of Nebraska's losses, you will see they were either leading or at least playing competitive ball by halftime. Then they would come out of the locker room and not quite know what to do next. One of the problems I say in many of the wins and losses was the lack of strong leadership on the court. I think we are starting to see that change with the all the guys working better together on and off the court. There’s a lot more talking going on during the games, and guys seem to have a better understanding of their roles.
One of the biggest differences between Nebraska last season and this season is the team's ability to shoot. Last season, the Huskers were 290th in eFG%. This season, they are 81st. Some of this seems to stem from that they pose a threat from the three-point line -- hello, Andrew White! -- but they also don't launch a bunch of shots from deep. How has Nebraska's offense changed in the past year? When is it most effective?
A lot of it has to do with the fact that Miles had done something that the past coaches struggled at: getting guys who can shoot. This freshman class is one of the best ones Nebraska has seen in a very long time, many of which are contributing on a fairly regular basis. In the past, Nebraska has relied on one or two guys to really get them through the games. This year, Nebraska actually has some others to take up the challenge.
Guys like Glynn Watson Jr., Jack McVeigh, and Ed Morrow Jr. have had their ups and down but are now getting to the point where they can be relied upon to help out when needed. Such as when White fouled out in the MSU game. Nebraska would have been in trouble a year ago if that had happened to Petteway. No way would the talent that was on the court be able to collectively bond together and push through.
Nebraska has two primary scorers: Kansas transfer Andrew White (17.4 PPG) and senior Shavon Shields (15.6 PPG), the latter of which just tallied 28 points against MSU. How would you describe their games? What must Michigan do to contain them?
Andrew White is the type of player who could probably play anywhere and do well. He’s the guy on the team that will lead you in scoring almost every game. If anyone is hitting the 3’s, it’s him. He’s currently shooting 43% from outside the arc and is leading the team. His size and strength also allows him to be a threat underneath and leads the team in rebounds with 6.1 per game. He can be a bit aggressive at times and has been in foul trouble early on in games, which has hurt Nebraska in some of the losses. If Michigan wants to stop White, keep him from shooting from the perimeter.
While not as talented as White, senior Shavon Shields makes up for it with his all-around ability on the floor. He has been starting since his freshman year and is a constant for the team to rely upon. He likes to play all over, so don’t be surprised to see him shooting outside and also driving to the basket. However, he does do the most damage inside unlike White, who can kill you with the 3’s. Keep Shields from driving to the basket, and it will frustrate him and might get him to lose his cool.
Michigan is one of the best three-point shooting teams. Not only do the Wolverines make a high percentage of them (9th in 3P%), close to half of their shots are behind the arc (11th in 3PA%). Does Nebraska have the perimeter defense to give them trouble?
Yes, Nebraska could cause problems on the perimeter if the Wolverines don’t get the ball to the basket quick enough. One area that the Huskers have done fairly well in over the past few years is defense. While they’re not the biggest on the court, they make up for it with speed and ability to steal the ball. If Michigan’s shooters do not get set in time, they could be forced to shoot the paint. Even without a true big man under the basket, that could cause problems during the game. Guys like Benny Parker and Watson will go for the steal if they see an opening.
Pinnacle Bank Arena can be a hostile environment for opponents, but Nebraska has lost four games at home this season (Miami-FL, Samford, Northwestern, and Indiana). What type of atmosphere should Michigan expect on Saturday afternoon?
It should be quite the ruckus on Saturday. Nebraska is on a four-game winning streak, and the fans have a second jolt of optimism. Even though we do not have a huge basketball history, we really support the team well, and "The Vault" should be packed. If it’s a close game, expect the crowd to get loud. The acoustics in that place are amazing. If you’re there, grab a Runza.
Prediction time! KenPom essentially views this as a coin flip, giving the slightest of edges to the home team. What will happen? Does Nebraska win its fifth straight game? Or will Michigan leave Lincoln victorious? And what will be the final score?
If you asked me a month ago, I think I would have said Michigan would walk away with this. Especially with that nice win against Maryland. But then there was the loss to a good Iowa team and last night’s win against Minnesota left something to be desired. You also can’t forget the loss to Purdue whose play seems to be sporadic right now…Honestly, I really can’t put my finger on who is good in the Big Ten right now.
I think Nebraska’s improved offensive play and home court advantage should help them Saturday. The momentum they are riding into this weekend is huge for the confidence and should show up on the court. That is, it "should". With all that said, I’m still feeling like Nebraska still needs to work on a few things to become a team that can beat Michigan. It will be a close game, and I could see it going either way.
Michigan 76 Nebraska 73
A big thanks to Patrick for his insight. Make sure to give him a follow on Twitter!