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Men’s Basketball: Nebraska Preview and Gamethread

NCAA Basketball: Purdue at Michigan State Mike Carter-USA TODAY Sports

Game Info:

Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena, Lincoln, Nebraska

When: 8 p.m. (ET) Thursday, January 17

TV/Radio: FS1/Spartan Sports Network radio

MSU status report:

MSU continued its strong start to the B1G, surviving yet another game without Langford and Ahrens (get well soon dudes), but now enters a brutal stretch: @ Neb (#11 KP), vs UMD (#20 KP), @ Iowa (#34 KP), @ Purdue (#13 KP), vs Indiana (#32 KP). Heck, the rest of the B1G schedule only has 3 “days off” (@ Illinois (#107 KP), vs Minn (#54 KP), and vs Rutgers (#120 KP)), and every other remaining game is against a team inside Kenpom’s top 35 teams in the country; such is life in the toughest conference in the country.

In the last three games, the three-headed big-man hydra of Nick Ward, Kenny Goins, and Xavier Tillman (Xicky Warmanns? [pronounced: “zicky war-mans”]) has come to the fore and really found itself (himself?). In this three-game stretch, the fearsome beast is averaging 32.3 ppg, 24.7 rpg, 6.67 apg, 5 blkspg, 2.3 spg, and 5.3 TOpg with a mean Ortg of 110.89. That is some incredible production, and doesn’t even take into account the defensive work (helping on screens, rotating on time, getting back in transition, communication, etc.). Thanks in large part to Xicky Warmanns (if someone wants to come up with a better name go for it!), MSU has been able to cover for our missing wings with a bit of added production from our bigs.

Winston has been largely excellent (hopefully we get a serious bounce back from his poor PSU game, which was due in large part to two horrendous offensive foul calls against him), and McQ, Henry, Loyer, and Brown have all chipped in timely buckets, solid wing defense, and, maybe most significantly, largely kept the turnovers down while maintaining our offensive pace and flow in the half-court.

This will be the biggest test yet for the undermanned Spartans as Nebraska really is one of the best teams in the country (with a starting group to rival any team’s).

Nebraska 13-4 (3-3): NR (AP), NR (USA/Coaches), #11 (Kenpom)

Depth Chart:

1 - Watson (6’0” sr)
2 - Allen (6’1” so)
3 - Palmer (6’6” sr), Akenten (6’6” so)
4 - Roby (6’8” jr)
5 - Copeland (6’9” sr), Borchardt (6’8” sr), Heiman (6’11” fr)


Nebraska is a damn fine team. They have a tight 8-man rotation (more on that in a bit) and rely almost exclusively on their starting-five to make things happen (20.8% bench minutes, #344 in the country per Kenpom vs. MSU, which plays its bench way more, at 35.8% bench minutes, #64 in the country). If you recognize that starting group, then you get a pat on the back: this is basically the same team they had last year (#62 in the country in minutes continuity from last year). They are willing to play fast - they like to get out in transition, especially Palmer and Watson who will push with the dribble - but generally play a slower pace to preserve their starters’ legs.

They are the #9 team in offensive efficiency per Kenpom. Every one of their starters can shoot, and every one of them will be willing to attack guys off the bounce (especially Palmer, Watson, and Roby/Copeland if they feel they can drive their respective bigs). I have watched them quite a bit this season and really enjoy them as a team. They like to work one side of the court, especially getting Palmer into wing PnR action as both the ball-handler and the screener, while trying to clear out the baseline help. These kinds of actions force defenses into choosing to die by the PnR defense (need to force the ball-handler OVER the screen - no refusals allowed - and to prevent the slip-pass with active hands and proper positioning), or to help from the weak-side and give up 3pt kick-outs. Nebraska has not lost a home game this year (and has a running 20-game home winning streak), and expect their open shooters to hit their shots, so I would guess that Tom will try to defend the PnR with as little help as possible (Xicky Warmanns will have to be lights out in PnR defense), and to force the ball-handler into the middle and inside the arc (whoever guards the ball - likely Henry, McQ, and Brown - will have to “ice” effectively or chase hard and smart behind the dribbler).

This is a good defensive team: #31 in Kenpom. They don’t allow teams to shoot it well (#8 in opponent EFG%), they force turnovers (#70 in defensive TO rate), and they don’t send teams to the line very often (#42 in FTA/FGA), but they do have a potentially fatal flaw (especially against a team with Xicky Warmanns on it): they allow opposing teams to recover a staggering 32.4% of available offensive rebounds (#306 in the nation!!!). Their starters are all solid defenders (though Palmer and Watson especially have to be careful about getting in foul trouble, so can sometimes be a bit relaxed in their “compete” on defense). But their reserves (2 bigs and a wing) are pretty foul-prone. You can probably guess, by now, what the game-plan will look like, but let’s glom their key players first.


Palmer - 82.5% mins (32 mpg), 109 Ortg, 30% usage, 29% shots, 18.7% assist rate, ~55% ft rate (121 fta), on 79 ft%, 45.5 2pt%, ~34 3pt%. Raw stats: 19 ppg, 4 rpg, 3 apg, 2+ combined steals and blocks, 2.5 TOpg. Again, excellent, and by far their most important player. If we shut him down we will almost certainly win the game. He drives the bus, gets their crowd and team going, and is by far their best creator of offense. A good ball-handler in transition and a solid passer, he is a tough cover and McQ and Henry will need to do a fabulous job to keep him under wraps.

Watson - 80% mins (31 mpg), ~119 Ortg, 20% usage, ~23% shots, 23% assist rate, on 88.5 ft%, ~52 2pt%, 40.5 3pt%. Raw stats: 13.5 ppg, 4 rpg, ~4 apg, 1 spg, under 2 TOpg. Very good player who has moved into a secondary role on the team over the last year or so, good shooter, good passer, but he does not present the kind of athletic challenge to Winston that some other lead guards do/will (Allen may also spend some time guarding Winston and he is more of a pest).

Copeland - ~80% mins (32 mpg), 117 Ortg, 21% usage, 21.5% shots, 6.7 Oreb%, on 70.5 ft%,64 2pt%, 34 3pt%. Raw stats: 14 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1 apg, ~2 combined steals and blocks, 1.5 TOpg. The Georgetown transfer really has found a home in Lincoln. He is long, mobile, and a solid ball-handler and shooter, but because he is their de-facto center he will be tasked with guarding Nick Ward and Xavier Tillman all night in the post; I don’t envy him that assignment. Look for him to struggle on the defensive glass, and pay attention to how Ward and Tillman handle defending him in space and transition.

Roby - 69% mins (~28 mpg), ~113 Ortg, 21% usage, 19% shots, 7.9 Oreb%, 5.8 blk%, 54% ft rate, on 68 ft%, 57 2pt%, 32 3pt%. Raw stats: 11 ppg, 6.4 rpg, ~2 apg, ~3 combined steals and blocks, under 2 TOpg. The fourth option (along with Allen, who is a good shooter and a good defender), Roby gets to the ft line, defends, and is capable of hitting a 3pt shot (as good a shooter as Goins: more accurate on fewer attempts, but basically the same kind of shooter). He is a guy that KG and Tillman have to shut down, and to dominate on the glass.


We can’t let Palmer and Watson go off, if we can hold them both to a not-particularly-efficient 15-18 points each then we will be in good shape. Handling those two in the PnR will be essential, we also need to prevent live-ball turnovers as both of these two can make plays in the open court.

The other key on defense is to close their shooters out, and to get them off the 3pt line: everyone outside of Watson and Palmer should be made into play-makers as much as possible because none of them are very good at that.

Nebraska will try to force MSU to get its points from inside the arc; the problem with this notion, of course, is that MSU has some very good interior scorers and will crash the board with vim and vigor all night. Nebraska will be asking for trouble by design, and they will, in all likelihood, get more of it than they bargained for. Look for Ward, again, to be telling: if he can operate in the middle (handling doubles effectively with passing, escape dribbles, and patience when needed, like he has all year), then Nebraska will be in for a very long night. While Copeland is a solid interior defender, Ward should own him and proceed to get Copeland, Borchardt, and Heiman all in foul trouble (Ward is drawing 9 fouls/40 mins, and this game may push that number even higher).

Winston should bounce back in this game as Nebraska will have a tough time containing him without fouling; we should see Cash fully locked in (he will have to be to win in this arena, and he will know that), and making a statement about who the best guard on the floor is with challengers coming at him every game for the next few games.

Finally, the wing defense from McQ and Henry will have to be better than ever against Palmer and Watson. Palmer especially will be the defensive barometer, if we can avoid foul-trouble on our two primary wing defenders, fight over screens, and if those two can pressure Palmer on the defensive end (especially in transition and on the offensive glass), then MSU should be in position to win another B1G war.


MSU 75 Nebraska 68

Make Gamethread go now!!!