Who: Nebraska Cornhuskers (12-8, 4-3 Big Ten)
When: Saturday, January 23rd, at 2:00 p.m. ET (ESPN2)
Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena -- Lincoln, Neb.
Spread: Vegas: Pick 'em | KenPom: L, 71-72 (49% WP)
The prospect of Michigan beating Nebraska in Lincoln this afternoon radically has changed in recent weeks. On January 5th, the Huskers were #156 on KenPom and had just lost to Iowa to drop to 8-8 (0-3 Big Ten). At that point, Michigan was a sizable favorite to win. Since then, though, Nebraska has played its best basketball. The Huskers have won their past four games, beating down three lower-tier Big Ten teams before stunning Michigan State, 72-71, in East Lansing. As a result, they have shot up KenPom's rankings to #78, making today's contest a tossup in the eyes of the computers and Vegas.
This puts Michigan in a difficult spot. Not only is this no longer a game that Michigan should win, a loss would harm Michigan's resume substantially. Though the Huskers have risen on KenPom quickly, their RPI hasn't. They are only #150 in RPI, so a loss would hand Michigan its first defeat against a team outside the RPI top 100 and maybe put the Wolverines, who are a #8 seed on Bracket Matrix, back onto the bubble, while a win wouldn't do much. So this game suddenly has become much more significant.
And, once again, Caris LeVert likely won't be available. On Friday, John Beilein ruled that LeVert was doubtful for the game and, for the first time in three weeks, indicated the injury isn't related to the two previous fractures LeVert has suffered in his left foot. Beilein still expects LeVert to be back this year. But it shouldn't be today.
I discussed Nebraska's recent surge above, so let's dig into its basketball profile.
Offensively, the Huskers have improved tremendously. Last season, they were 285th in adjusted offensive efficiency (96.3), and, this season, they are 66th (109.0). The main catalyst for this is its shooting. After being 290th in eFG% (46.2) and 340th in three-point percentage (28.4) last season, the Huskers are 81st (52.0 eFG%) and 106th (36.2 3P%) in those categories, respectively, this season. They are effective inside the arc as well. Though they don't get many shots around the bucket (339th in pct. of shots at the rim), they are 79th in two-point shooting (51.0 pct.) because they can knock down their mid-range jumpers. However, the drawback of this is that they don't get to the free-throw line often (170th in FTR), but, when they miss their shots, they do a decent job of earning second chances (73rd in OR%). What will be interesting to watch is Nebraska's turnovers. For much of this season, Nebraska has had problems giving up the basketball (204th in TO%), but, in Big Ten play, the Huskers own the third-best turnover rate (15.1 pct.).
Defensively, Nebraska is 104th in adjusted efficiency (99.6), which is a solid step in the wrong direction after the Huskers were 25th in that stat last season. Plus, their defense hasn't been much better in conference play, ranking ninth in efficiency (106.4). The one thing that they do well is grab defensive rebounds (32nd in DR%). Other than that, though, nothing stands out. Nebraska's defense is 88th in eFG% (47.3), permitting opponents to make 46.1 percent of their twos (90th) and 33.2 percent of their threes (107th) -- though Big Ten offenses have had more success. On top of that, Nebraska is just so-so at forcing turnovers (150th in TO%) and below-average in free-throw rate (255th).
Nebraska is led by its two 6-foot-7 wings, Kansas transfer Andrew White and senior Shavon Shields, who have become one of the Big Ten's best scoring duos. White has averaged 17.0 PPG, which is the sixth-best in the Big Ten, mostly because of his three-point shooting. He's hit 53-of-122 triples (43.4 pct.), and almost all of those have been of the catch-and-shoot variety. But as the saying goes: he's more than just a shooter. He also is a capable slasher that can finish at the rim or drain mid-range jumpers (61.4 2P%). Accordingly, White's offensive rating is 122.8, which is fifth in the Big Ten among players with a usage rate of at least 20 percent. And, when White isn't being one of the Big Ten's best offensive players, he's been a great defensive rebounder (19.1 DR%), tallying 6.1 RPG.
Shields averages 16.1 PPG, which is ninth in the Big Ten, but he does it much differently than White. Shields isn't near to being the same three-point threat that White is, having sunk only 14-of-46 threes (30.4 pct.). Where Shields thrives are as a slasher and mid-range jump-shooter, which have allowed him to convert 106-of-203 twos (52.2 pct.) and take 94 trips to the free-throw line (37.8 FTR, 75.5 FT%). Plus, Shields is coming off two of his best scoring performances of the season. He posted 28 points on 20 shots against the Spartans on January 20 and 24 points on 10 shots against Minnesota on January 12.
Nebraska essentially starts two point guards. The one to watch is six-foot freshman Glynn Watson, Jr., who was a top-100 recruit in the 2015 class and has started to play like it in recent weeks. In his last four games, Watson has registered 12.5 PPG on 21-of-38 shooting (55.3 pct.), raising his season average to 8.1 PPG. He doesn't knock down many threes (30.0 3P%) or make his way to the tin often, but he has a solid pull-up jumper that must be accounted for. Further, Watson can do more than just score. He's the team's best distributor (22.0 ast%), ball-handler (2.43 A:TO ratio), and steal-generator (3.4 pct.). The other point guard is 5-foot-9 senior Benny Parker, who is a low-usage player (12.2 usg%) that struggles to score inside the arc (39.5 2P%) and owns a higher turnover rate (24.7) than assist rate (14.6). Parker can hurt defenses behind the three-point line, where he has drilled 17-of-47 treys (36.2 pct.). His three-point percentage has been even higher against Big Ten foes (44.4 pct.), but most of it is due to a 5-of-10 performance vs. Northwestern.
However, neither Watson nor Parker is Nebraska's best scoring guard. That honor belongs to 6-foot-4 junior Tai Webster, who has notched 9.9 PPG. Webster started the first 12 games of the season before he was replaced by Watson. Nonetheless, he's still earning about the same number of MPG (25.6) as he did before he was moved to the bench. Webster loves to drive to the bucket as more than half of his field-goal tries have been layups, dunks, or tip-ins. He can hit jumpers, too (40.6 3P%), but don't expect many.
At center, the Huskers will insert two freshmen that look more like forwards than big men. The starter is 6-foot-8 Michael Jacobson, who was a three-star prospect. Jacobson doesn't get many touches in the post (14.6 usg%), but he's very efficient when he does (119.0 ORtg) because he can hit short-range jumpers and tends to draw shooting fouls on his defender (82.7 FTR, 81.4 FT%). Also, Jacobson is a plus rebounder on both ends of the floor (10.5 OR%, 16.8 DR%) and a solid rim protector (4.4 blk%). His backup will be 6-foot-7 Ed Morrow, Jr., who was a four-star recruit that was designated as a small forward. However, Nebraska can get away with putting him at the 5 because his athleticism helps him succeed around the rim as a scorer (62.0 2P%), rebounder (13.9 OR%, 15.4 DR%), and shot-blocker (5.6 pct.). But Morrow still needs to learn to harness that athleticism at times because he can get into foul trouble too easily (7.0 FC/40).
One last reserve that should earn a large chunk of minutes is 6-foot-8 freshman wing Jack McVeigh, who will give White and Shields a breather when they need it. McVeigh was a three-star talent from Australia that has acclimated to his role as a three-point specialist (62.4 3PA%) and defensive rebounder (14.8 DR%) off the bench well. He's been only average from behind the arc (34.5 3P%), but he's posted a strong offensive rating (108.3) because he doesn't turn it over (14.9 TO%) and can finish when he gets inside.
Go to the Rim: There is no question that Michigan can't miss the same number of open threes as it did against Minnesota on Wednesday (9-of-31 3P), but Michigan can't settle for threes either. Nebraska doesn't have an intimidating defense (9th in Big Ten-only efficiency), and that's particularly the case in the paint, where the Huskers likely won't play a center that's taller than 6-foot-8. Plus, the Huskers have a knack for fouling shooters (13th in Big Ten-only FTR), so a more aggressive approach inside should lead to many trips to the free-throw line for the Wolverines. And free points are fun on the road.
Duncan Robinson's Defense: Unless John Beilein opts to try 6-foot-4 Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman on 6-foot-7 Andrew White, 6-foot-6 Robinson will be tasked with the most important defensive matchup of the game. White is an excellent offensive player, ranking sixth in the Big Ten in PPG because he's a lethal three-point sniper and can amass points inside as well. There is no one right way to guard White, and Robinson has earned a reputation for being a subpar defender, though he's improving. One area where Robinson needs to be better is his closeouts, and that clearly will be vital this afternoon.
Zak Irvin vs. Shavon Shields: As it seems to be almost every Big Ten game because he's an undersized 4, Irvin has drawn one of the game's most important matchups. He will go head to head with Shields, who's been a known volume scorer for the past two years. Shields just had one of his best games of the season, scoring 28 points at Michigan State, but he's struggled in his four career starts against the Wolverines, recording 9.3 PPG on just 39.5 eFG%. If Irvin can force Shields into another tough performance by being physical with him down low and sagging off on the perimeter to tempt Shields into jacking up threes, Irvin should be in great shape to outscore him and win this matchup.
This will be the close game that the computers and Vegas project. The things that go in Nebraska's favor are that the Huskers have been on a roll the past two weeks or so, this game will be played in Lincoln, and Caris LeVert is doubtful to be a part of it. The things that go in Michigan's favor are that, with the exception of the SMU loss, the Wolverines have handled themselves well in hostile environments and this should be an offense-oriented contest. And it's difficult to pick against Michigan (16th in adjusted offensive efficiency) in a game where both offenses have a large advantage over the defenses.
Michigan 75, Nebraska 73
Also, Corn Nation's Patrick Gerhart predicts that this will be a close Michigan victory.