When Michigan’s schedule was first unveiled and it became known the Wolverines would head to Lincoln on Dec. 25 to take on Nebraska, Isaiah Livers made his frustrations known.
“No knock against Nebraska, but Christmas Day, I don’t think anyone wants to travel away from their place,” the senior forward said earlier this month. “That’s a different story — we’re not gonna go into college athletes not being paid. Although, still, you gotta think about it as being grateful and being blessed and having an opportunity to be on the court. Because, like I said, the season could have not happened.”
Livers fielded another question about the Big Ten’s holiday scheduling Wednesday. His tone had changed somewhat — he said he felt “honored” Michigan was one of the only teams playing on Christmas, adding a win over the Cornhuskers “would be our biggest present.”
Whether Livers’ view has actually changed or if his latest comments are just athlete-speak, it’s hard not to sympathize with him and his teammates, who won’t receive any sort of compensation for having to make their longest road trip of the season on Christmas.
At an 81 percent win likelihood per KenPom, Friday’s contest ranks as the Wolverines’ easiest remaining game. Nebraska is ranked No. 116 in KenPom — 60 spots below Northwestern, the next-lowest Big Ten team. The Huskers’ four wins this season have come against No. 328 McNeese State, No. 165 North Dakota State, No. 217 South Dakota, and NAIA opponent Doane. Second-year coach Fred Hoiberg has a few nice young pieces, but his program is deep in the throes of a lengthy building process.
Redshirt junior Teddy Allen leads the Huskers in scoring, averaging 17.4 points per game. The former Nebraska Gatorade Player of the Year has had a turbulent college career. He began his career at West Virginia before transferring to Wichita State, but was kicked off the team there. After a stint at Western Nebraska Community College, Allen appears to have found a home in Lincoln. At 6-foot-6 and 223 pounds, he’s a stocky guard who can create his shot at all levels. He’s taken over one-third of Nebraska’s shots when he’s been on the court, so there’s no question where the Huskers will go when they need offense.
Dalano Banton is a lengthy wing who’s second on the team in scoring (13.9 PPG) after transferring from Western Kentucky and sitting out in 2019-20. The redshirt sophomore is much more than a second option, however: he’s an ace rebounder (7.8 RPG) and the Huskers’ main playmaker (5.5 APG). The latter number jumps off the page in particular when considering Banton stands 6-foot-9. Position-less basketball is in vogue, but guys like Banton are still pretty rare.
Junior Trey McGowens (10.6 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.5 APG) comes from Pitt, and the 6-foot-4 guard has slotted in as Nebraska’s tertiary scoring option. Senior Kobe Webster (9.8 PPG) has had to readjust his role after being a big-time bucket-getter at Western Illinois: more of a spot-up shooter now, he’s hitting 39 percent from downtown. Redshirt sophomore and TCU transfer Lat Mayen (7.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG) is a lanky, 6-foot-9 wing with shooting potential he hasn’t shown this year — he hit 38 percent from deep at JUCO Chipola College in Florida, but that figure’s fallen to 27.5 percent.
Junior Shamiel Stevenson (6.0 PPG) was a teammate of McGowens at Pitt, and now comes off the bench as a physical, 245-pound swingman. Senior Trevor Lakes starred at DII University of Indianapolis before making the jump to the Big Ten. The 6-foot-7 forward has played in two games after receiving his waiver of eligibility last week, and gives the Huskers a deadeye shooter on the wing — he hit 41 percent from deep in his UIndy career.
Hoiberg relied heavily on transfers at Iowa State, so it makes sense he’s doing the same here: just two non-transfers are part of his rotation. Senior Thorir Thorbjarnason, the lone holdover from the Tim Miles era, is one of them. The 6-foot-6 bit-of-everything wing averages 4.1 points, 3.6 rebounds and 1.8 rebounds per game. Sophomore Yvan Ouedraogo was the youngest player in the Big Ten last year at just 17 years old, playing at its most demanding position, no less. But he’s got plenty of potential and a physique that, at 6-foot-9 and 245 pounds, belies his youth, and is currently averaging 5 points and 5.8 rebounds.
Team style-wise, you know what you’re getting with Fred Hoiberg teams. The Huskers take 45 percent of their shots per deep and rank 34th in the country in tempo (10th in average possession length). Given their lack of talent, they’re going to throw up bricks (149th in offensive rating, 218th in effective FG%), but don’t be surprised if they push the score into the 70s anyway.
If there’s one advantage the Huskers have against Michigan — their size. Webster, at 6-foot, is their only rotation player below 6-foot-4. A starting lineup of McGowens, Allen, Banton, Mayen and Ouedraogo has the length to be suffocating, especially against the relatively diminutive Mike Smith and Eli Brooks. (Nebraska is 36th in the country in steal rate, and Allen, Banton and McGowens all average at least one per game.) This would be a good game for multi-positional threats like Franz Wagner and Chaundee Brown to step up to the plate.
But as long as the Wolverines step onto the court at Pinnacle Bank Arena fully awake and ready to play basketball after a 12-day rest, they should move to 7-0 without breaking much of a sweat. While Allen and Banton can really play, they’re just two guys. The talent differential is just too great in this one to expect anything other than a comfortable Michigan victory.