Michigan State returns to the Breslin Center as desperate for a win as they’ve been all season, trying to stop a two game losing streak against the Nebraska Cornhuskers. The Huskers are 11-8 overall and 3-3 in the Big Ten.
BACKCOURT – The Huskers have gone to a two point guard look recently, with Benny Parker and Glynn Watson both starting in the backcourt. Parker is the veteran, a 5’9″ senior guard who relies on quickness. He’s just good enough as a shooter to demand accounting for (37/37%) but doesn’t launch very often, as he only averages about 4 shot attempts per game. He’s a solid decision maker. Watson is the future for this program. A 6 foot freshman guard from the same program in suburban Chicago which produced Isiah Thomas decades ago, Watson has made a quick adjustment for NU. He’s averaging 7.8ppg and has a 2.5/1 assist to TO ratio, so his reported gifts as a floor leader have shown through early. Where he’s struggled is where he was expected to need time to develop, and that’s as a jumpshooter. He’s 38% overall but just 29% from deep. If and when that improves, he has a chance to be the kind of point guard Nebraska hasn’t had in a long time. He’s definitely a foundational piece for Tim Miles. The big gun in this group is on the wing in the person of 6’7″ junior Kansas transfer Andrew White. He was a guy Miles hoped would be able to step right in and provide some scoring to replace what they lost with the departure of Terran Petteway, and White has absolutely delivered. He leads Nebraska in scoring at 17.5ppg. He’s been a great shooter and finisher, shooting 52/44% on the season with about half of his attempts coming from outside the arc. He also leads the team in rebounding at 6.3 boards per game. In short, he’s been everything they’d hoped for and probably a bit more.
Off the bench, 6’3″ junior Tai Webster was a starter until Watson’s recent elevation into that group. He’s still playing a key role as a reserve, averaging 9.8 ppg on 40% plus shooting overall and from three, something he’s markedly improved this year. The big issue for Webster is that he was miscast as a point guard when he arrived in Lincoln. He’s really not a reliable playmaker, but as a scoring threat and defender with some size, he plays a big role. Freshman Jack McVeigh is a 6’8″ Australian who is listed as a forward but really figures as more of a perimeter guy at this point in his career. He hasn’t been quite as accurate from deep as they’d hoped but he’s shown signs of being a stretch option down the line, shooting 37/33% so far with well over half his attempts coming from 3.
FRONTCOURT – Shavon Shields is a 6’7″ senior forward who is the “2” in the 1-2 punch alongside White. He played that role with Petteway for the 2 previous seasons, so it’s nothing new for the Husker veteran. At 15.4ppg and 5.4 rpg, he’s second on the team in both categories. He hasn’t been as reliable with the deep ball as they’d hoped, but otherwise Shields is giving NU about what they expected…a tough matchup at the 4 as a guy who can score inside or out, and who has some off the dribble game to go with good strength. The other post spot has been problematic for Miles, as he’s rotated in several young players along the way. The current starter is 6’8″ freshman Michael Jacobson, a native of Iowa. Jacobson is averaging 4.2ppg and 3.4 rpg in about 15 mpg. He’s one of several Huskers who don’t quite fit the center mold but are playing there out of necessity.
Jake Hammond is a 6’10” sophomore who started the first several games this season before giving way to Jacobson. He’s averaging about 12 mpg and rebounds at a decent rate per minutes. 6’8″ forward Ed Morrow is a true freshman whom the Huskers think can be a key guy moving forward in this program. So far he’s shown great potential as a fine finisher (64% from the floor), an effective rebounder and a guy who may have a future as a good post defender. Right now, it’s about increasing strength and continuing to gain experience, but he has the biggest upside of any of the young Husker big men. Nick Fuller is a 6’7″ sophomore who plays about 7 mpg but who hasn’t provided a ton of production thus far.
THE 5 KEYS
1. Dribble Penetration – Simple as that…it’s by far the biggest key in this game. Nebraska attempts about 21.5 FT per game, so they’re a team which has shown an ability to get to the stripe thus far. Shields and White are by far the most frequent visitors…not a surprise, as they’re the top offensive talents for this team. With Tum out of the lineup, there are a whole slew of Spartans who have to get better in a hurry…and it’s not enough to simply not foul. You have to actually *defend* without fouling.
2. Transition – I thought one thing MSU did reasonably well on Sunday which got lost in the end result was pushing the ball and finding transition opportunities. Nebraska wants to play a little faster than Wisconsin, so those chances will hopefully present themselves even more frequently. In an up and down game, MSU has a distinct advantage IMO.
3. Post – This is another game where I think MSU can and should do real damage in the paint. Nebraska’s big men outside of Shields are young and not yet particularly strong. This is a game for Matt, DD and Gav to get some things done.
4. Bryn – Though he made some shots in Madison, I don’t think Bryn’s been quite the same guy since Zel’s come back, which is a bit strange considering how well they feed off each other. I think MSU has to look to get him going in the offense. Most of that probably falls on Zel’s shoulders.
5. Stop the “Third Man” – It’s a safe bet that White and Shields are going to get theirs offensively. If MSU can prevent any other Husker from joining them in double digits, its chances at a victory go way up.
Another big game for a lot of reasons. For now, I think MSU can put aside Big Ten title notions and simply concentrate on getting a win and getting better, both of which are things it pretty sorely needs at the moment. The whole thing starts on the defensive end IMO. Can they stop penetration and avoid putting the other guys on the line a ton?