Golden Gophers 16-6 (4-5) vs. Nebraska 11-10 (3-7)
12:00PM CST at Devaney Center in Lincoln, NE
TV: Big Ten Network Radio: 1500 AM
When the Golden Gophers lost to the Iowa Hawkeyes this week it wasn’t a must-win game, and thank goodness for that. The Gophers won the middle twenty minutes of the game, but were absolutely dreadful in the opening and closing moments, and let what should have been a win slip away. Now with only eight games left on the conference schedule, the Gophers face the prospect of nearly every game being a true must win.
With the overall quality of the Big Ten this season, and a few quality wins already, a 9-9 conference record should be enough to get into the NCAA tournament regardless of what happens in the Big Ten tournament. Beating the Hawkeyes would have given the Gophers a much easier path to nine wins. The path is still there, though it has narrowed. There are two winnable road games left on the schedule, at Nebraska and at Northwestern. That gets the Gophers to six Big Ten wins. They close the season at home against Northwestern, which get them to seven wins. To get to the magic nine wins, they would then have to beat two of Wisconsin, Ohio State, Indiana, or Michigan State. There is also one more road game at Wisconsin, but it is never wise to count on a win at the Kohl Center. Every loss from here on adds difficulty to an already daunting task.
The loss in Iowa City was obviously disappointing, and the Gophers need to put that game behind them and move on. For whatever reason, there are bad match-ups and the Gophers just couldn’t get it done against the Hawkeyes. They are 4-4 against the rest of the Big Ten and have shown the ability to win the big game already this season. Their first Big Ten game in Lincoln is now just as important as winning in Indiana and beating the Illini.
The Cornhuskers are a difficult team to figure out. On paper they are bad, with an 11-10 overall record and 3-7 in conference play. Injuries have been a big issues, especially for starting center Jorge Brian-Diaz who is playing again, but not playing like himself. He averaged 10 points per game last season, which has dropped to 8.6 this season and only four points per game in conference play. With him struggling, there only other post presence is Brandon Ubel. At 6’11” and 240 pounds he can be a bit of a load and is good shooter and very good rebounder, especially on the offense end. After those two, no Husker over 6’7” plays meaninful minutes.
Especially with Brian-Diaz’s struggles this season, Nebraska’s strength, or relative strength, has been their perimeter play. Bo Spencer, a 6’2” point guard least them in scoring. He is far from efficient, and scores the most point because of the sheer volume of shots he takes. He has 90 more shot attempts than Toney McCray, who is second on the team in shot attempts. Half of his 12 field-goal attempts per game come from behind the three-point line, where he is only 30% shooter. If he shoots enough, he could start to get hot, and the Gophers can’t let him get open looks. Dylan Talley is Nebraska’s best outside shooter at nearly 39%, and he can also score off the dribble. Toney McCray is a similar player at 37% three-point shooting and is a very good defensive rebounder. Brandon Richardson, a 6’0” guard, exploded for 25 in a win at Iowa behind 6-7 three-point shooting. Caleb Walker is another poor shooting, good rebounding guard.
Nebraska’s introduction to Big Ten defenses has not been pleasant. They have the worst offense in conference play, scoring only .91 points per possession. An average NCAA offense scores slightly more than one point per possession. They rank dead last in the conference in offensive turnovers and 11th in offensive rebounding, getting to the free-throw line, and three point shooting. Something has to give on Sunday though. The Gophers commit more fouls than anyone in the Big Ten and and are 10th in defensive rebounding. We’ll find out of the moveable object or the stoppable force is stronger on Sunday.
Nebraska’s defense has not been completely horrible. They are an above average three-point defending team, but have been absolutely torched on two-point attempts. Big Ten opponents are shooting 54% inside the three-point line against the Huskers. There horrible at blocking shots, but lead the Big Ten in steals. The Gophers must do a better job hanging on to the ball, and if they feel the need to commit turnovers, they would be strongly advised to throw the ball out of bounds. Easy baskets for the home team would get the crowd involved and give points to a bad offense.
After their 0-4 start in the Big Ten, the Gophers were left for dead. Now entering the home stretch of the season, they’ll have plenty of chances to prove they belong in the NCAA tournament. Good teams excel in these types of situations. Now we find out if the Gophers are a good team.