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Michigan vs. Nebraska Basketball Preview: The Big Ten title defense begins

The Wolverines open up conference play on Tuesday.

NCAA Basketball: Michigan at Nebraska Steven Branscombe-USA TODAY Sports

The best way to describe the start to the Michigan Wolverines’ 2021-22 season is “humbling.” After beginning the season ranked No. 6 — and quickly moving up to No. 4 — the inexperienced roster started enduring some real challenges and now finds itself with a 5-3 record heading into the mini start to conference play.

All is not lost for the reigning Big Ten Champions (who are not the only team on campus to carry that moniker). The Wolverines have slid down to No. 18 per Kenpom, third-best in the conference, so there is still plenty of potential, but expectations should now be adjusted. Hopefully Juwan Howard can use the ups and downs from the first month to shore up the weakest parts of this team.

If Michigan wants to retain its title, there is no margin for error against the bottom of the conference. There is a fairly clear lower tier right now, and the Wolverines’ December draw is about as favorable as possible with games against Nebraska and Minnesota, who rank 14th and 11th in the conference per Kenpom, respectively. Time to get to work.

Michigan Wolverines (5-3, 0-0) vs. Nebraska Cornhuskers (5-4, 0-1)

Date & Time: Tuesday, Dec. 7, 7:00 p.m. ET
Television/Streaming: ESPN2
Location: Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, NE
Big Ten Standings: MICH t-6th, NEB t-10th
DraftKings Sportsbook Odds: MICH -7.5, O/U 140

Big Ten play has already begun for the Cornhuskers, who fell to Indiana on Saturday. Do not be deceived by the record — all five of Nebraska’s wins came against teams ranked 200 or worse. This is certainly one of the worst teams in the conference and Torvik currently projects a 6-14 Big Ten record. Michigan won the lone matchup last season, winning 80-69 in Lincoln on Christmas Day.

Despite its struggles, statistically this team is not necessarily terrible. The Huskers only gave up 0.94 PPP against Indiana and has defended inside the arc fairly well. Hopefully the Wolverines have found their shooting stroke a bit after a better performance against San Diego State, though it remains to be seen who can be relied upon going forward. This could be another good chance for Frankie Collins to get some more work in and possibly take over the starting job.

On the other end, this should be a strong game from the Michigan defense. Still ranked 12th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency, one big mismatch is three-point shooting, where the Wolverines have been solid (31st) and Nebraska has been beyond awful (329th). Keeping that in mind, the defense can focus interiorly and take care of the much lesser team who is not at the level of a typical Big Ten offense.

Matchup Highlights

The one area of Nebraska’s defensive profile sticks out is on the glass, where opponents have had some level of success. Michigan is not necessarily elite in this department, but Hunter Dickinson had four offensive rebounds against SDSU to go along with his 23 points, and regardless of if Moussa Diabate is available, the Wolverines should clean up down low. The theme for this squad will continue to be running things through the bigs.

Not a lot to fear from the Huskers offense, but there are three names to know on Tuesday. Forward Derrick Walker has been very efficient to open up the year, shooting 82.4 percent (!!) thus far. Guard Alonzo Verge is an extremely high-usage player who averages over five rebounds and five assists to go with 13.6 PPG. The brightest star is freshman Bryce McGowens, the 29th-ranked recruit in the 247 Composite, who has six 18-plus point games already this season.