Preview - Michigan State vs. Nebraska - Separation Sunday?

Bruce Thorson-USA TODAY Sports

Michigan State will look to possibly take sole possession of first place tomorrow in East Lansing against an improved Nebraska squad.

Your MICHIGAN STATE SPARTANS vs. THE NEBRASKA CORNHUSKERS

THE JACK BRESLIN STUDENT EVENTS CENTER, EAST LANSING, MICHIGAN

SUNDAY, FEBRUARY 16TH, 2014, 3:00 PM EASTERN

TV: BTN

RADIO: SPARTAN SPORTS NETWORK

Let's be honest -- very, very few of us expected the basketball version of the Nebraska Cornhuskers to present a persistent challenge in the Big Ten this year. Yet there they are at 5-6 in the Big Ten so far, a game and a half out of fourth place and a first round bye in the Big Ten Tournament. So how did Nebraska become so successful (relatively)?

First, make sure the months of November and December aren't too stressful. While the Cornhuskers did lose non conference games to Creighton, Cincinnati, Massachusetts, and UAB in 2013, only UAB was ranked significantly below Nebraska in KenPom.  Second, defend your home court.  Nebraska has only lost one game in Lincoln this year, a narrow 71-70 defeat to Michigan in early January. Since then they've defeated Ohio State, Minnesota, and Indiana at home (as well as Northwestern and Illinois, but you probably already assumed that).

Nebraska accomplished this turnaround from last year by first holding onto the ball; they only relinquish possession 17.2% of the time (90th in Division 1 - and still above MSU's 16.2% TO%. I'm stunned as well).  Like Wisconsin, they forgo offensive boards (26.8% OR% on offense, 305th in D1) to protect the glass on their end (opponents only get 28.8% of their misses, 57th in D1).  Unlike Wisconsin, they foul on defense -- opponents shoot about 4 free throws for every 9 field goals they attempt, this rate puts Nebraska in the bottom third of Division 1.

One of the catalysts for the Cornhuskers' improvement has been redshirt sophomore Terran Petteway.  Petteway played for Texas Tech his freshman year before transferring to Lincoln (I wasn't able to find out the exact reason - let's just assume it was to get as far away as possible from then Red Raider head coach Billy Gillespie), and now not only takes the plurality of the Cornhuskers' shots, but takes them efficiently, as he had a 37%/48%/82% 3PT/2PT/FT% line.

And there's Tim Miles. Nebraska's second year head coach has the Cornhuskers playing efficiently, and he's the anti-Tom Izzo in that as much as Izzo disdains social media, Miles embraces it, sometimes literally:

Make no mistake thought, behind that bluster, Miles has brought some genuine excitement around Nebraska's basketball program, and would be identified as THE up and coming coach in the Big Ten if Chris Collins hadn't started to reshape Northwestern into a defensive force (note - the previous last five words had not been typed by any person ever until January of this year). So how can Michigan State avoid humiliation tomorrow?

  • Feed Payne and Costello plz. Nebraska has only one player who sees consistent playing time that is taller than 6'8" (6'10" Walter Pitchford, who is a Payne-esque 39.7% from three), so the paint will be ripe for post move and hooks. MSU isn't always going to shot 50%+ from three like they did against Northwestern last game, so a little inside scoring and free throws will go a long way towards a victory.
  • Don't foul on offense, if possible. The Huskers are not a good team shooting from two (46.7%, 250th in D1), and average from three (34.8%, 151st in D1). However, they are slightly above average both in shooting free throws and completing said free throws for points (42.2 free throws attempted for every 100 field goals and 71.2 FT%, 133rd and 131 in D1 respectively).  The way the defense has been playing (sans Thursday's efforts against Northwestern) should be good enough to keep Nebraska from scoring enough to win.
  • Just don't be weird. Don't shoot too many jump shots. Play good help defense. No stupid fouls (Trice, looking at you after weakly fouling the NW player on a layup for a three point play two days ago). Look for Payne and Costello in the post (see point 1). Keep everyone healthy. Be cool, but not too cool, you know? Give a good effort
While this is a game the Spartans should win (the line for this opened with the Spartans getting 13.5 points), weird things this year have happened (we're not THAT far removed from the Georgetown game after all).  The aim of this game is clear - get the win, stay healthy, and hope that Michigan slips against the Badgers in Ann Arbor to get a one game lead in the Big Ten. Here's to hoping for the procedural tomorrow.
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