Nebraska’s basketball team has a similar story to Penn State’s this season. After a tough non-conference slate loaded with challenges, the Huskers surprised some Big Ten opponents coming out of the conference gate. However, they find themselves on the outside of the NCAA Tournament picture right now due to close losses in games that could have gone either way.
Just like Penn State fans, Nebraska supporters can easily imagine an alternate reality in which their team is contending for the big dance. The good news is that for both teams, there is still time to turn things around and make that big push. To hear Nebraska’s side of the story, we spoke with Patrick L Gerhart of Corn Nation.
Black Shoe Diaries: Nebraska played a very tough non-conference slate that included matchups with UCLA, Kansas, Creighton, and Dayton! Was the schedule supposed to be so tough, and how did it help the Huskers prepare for Big Ten play?
Corn Nation: Throw in teams like Clemson and Virginia Tech and yes, you have one tough non-conference schedule. At one point it was ranked as the toughest schedule in the country, which can be good or bad for any team. Tim Miles hasn't been afraid of going up against anyone and doesn't seem to favor an easy schedule. I think it really did help the Husker team prepare for the Big Ten. With those top teams they were able to see where they were and could get their game together as the season went on. It wasn't like they could skate through and hope things were ready for the conference slate. One or two Big Ten teams did that and I don't think it helped them at all.
BSD: The Huskers shocked the nation by winning their first three Big Ten games of the season, but since they have lost eight of nine, including a heart-breaker last time out against Wisconsin. Has the losing skid been due more to tough breaks late in games or the talent gap catching up with Nebraska?
CN: Some tough breaks but we also lost our second leading scorer in Ed Morrow Jr. with an ankle sprain. Our scoring has gone down with him being out. Many of those losses were by only one point or maybe a few. In fact, Ohio State, Rutgers, and Wisconsin were all by one point. Those three wins alone could have us sitting in the upper end of the conference right now. I think if we had a healthy Ed then we most likely would have a much better record than we do. Talent is actually pretty decent at this point. Miles has done well recruiting. However, they are a young team and a lot of what is out there still needs some time to gel.
BSD: With both Andrew White and Shavon Shields having moved on, the duo of Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr. have stepped up big time to carry the offense from the backcourt. Which player has improved the most since last year, and who has the higher ceiling?
CN: In terms of improvement I would say Tai Webster just based on consistency. He has always been a talent but for some reason would get into slumps that would carry on for games. One night he would score 16 and the next three he would be in the single digits. You could see the ability in him, just not the focus to make it happen all season. This year he has finally brought that consistency that was so needed in the past. He is our lone senior this year and he is making it his best by far. I just wish he had another season for this young team to improve for him.
BSD: Ed Morrow was one of the best rebounders in the conference before he missed seven games with a foot injury. What can we expect from him now that he’s made his return to the lineup in the Wisconsin game?
CN: He played 26 minutes against Wisconsin and put up 5 points and 13 rebounds. Not to bad for a guy who is coming off an injury. The rebounds tell you he was focusing on what he does best. With that said, I think the sprain was a little worse than expected so I wouldn't expect a game like he had before it anytime soon. What Nebraska would like is his scoring to come back. Before the injury he was averaging in the double digits and we need that productivity to get through the end of the season.
BSD: Overall, this year’s Nebraska team has improved on defense over last year’s squad, but three-pointers have been a major issue. Big Ten opponents are hitting a ridiculous 45 percent of their shots from beyond the arc. How do the Huskers fix this problem?
CN: That's a great question. A lot of it is luck I think but also the fact that the Huskers are still a fairly young team that will develop as time goes on. They seem to cover the paint well but leave high-scoring guys open to make those shots. I think it will improve for next season. This year might be a wash in regards to any major improvements.
BSD: With Penn State and Nebraska ranked closely together by KenPom, it’s hard to imagine this one not coming down to the wire. How do you see the game going for the Huskers?
CN: I see both teams starting out slow with the lead changing hands through the first half. Second half could be an entirely different story with one team taking the lead and keeping it. Right now I see Penn State taking that lead and keeping it until the end. The Huskers still need Morrow and he needs a little more time before he's close to 100 percent. Because of that, 73-68 Penn State.
Thanks again to Patrick for taking the time to answer our questions. Don’t forget to check in with Corn Nation to stay up to date on the Huskers all season long!