Wisconsin's regular season concludes in Lincoln, Neb. tonight in what should be a highly entertaining affair.
When the Big Ten schedules first came out, who would have thought that the Badgers' finale would be as difficult to win as this game is likely to be? I mean somehow, someway, the Nebraska Cornhuskers are a quality basketball team... the Nebraska Cornhuskers. I truly never thought I'd write or speak such a phrase.
Wisconsin enters tonight's game on an eight game winning streak after knocking off a pesky Purdue team this past Wednesday. On the flip side, Nebraska waltzed into Assembly Hall that same night and wrecked Indiana's Senior Day.
The Huskers are playing with all the urgency in the world right now, and with the conference tournament looming, they're likely just a win or two away from wrapping up an NCAA tournament bid. In fact, many pundits are saying the Skers secure they're first bid to the Big Dance since 1998 if they down UW.
From purely a fan's perspective, we really couldn't ask for a better matchup to conclude the regular season. Wisconsin and Nebraska are the two hottest teams in the conference right now, and each has thrived this season in what they're respective settings will be this evening: the Huskers are 14-1 at home, while the Badgers are 11-2 away from home.
The hype and anticipation rolling through Lincoln for tonight's game is at an all-time high for Husker fans, and even the guys over at Corn Nation are calling it "an unprecedented game in Nebraska hoops history."
Suffice it say, Wisconsin will have to be clicking on all cylinders to pull off yet another impressive road win. How do the boys make that happen? Well, let's provide some insight with our three keys.
Traevon Jackson needs to have a controlling floor game
I know Trae is a bit of a lightning rod individual amongst Badger faithful, often drawing a lot of fans' ire if has a poor performance, but when he is locked in as a distributor and controls the pace of the game, Wisconsin is deadly.
I think he has the opportunity to have a big-time game tonight facing off with Nebraska's Tai Webster, who is an inconsistent performer in his own right. The freshman point guard averages nearly as many turnovers per game (2.0) as he does assists (2.1), and the New Zealander isn't living up to the expectations that Nebraska fans had for him coming into the year.
I'd love to see Jackson go out and take the kid's lunch because the point guard matchup is one the Badgers can and should exploit. To take it a step farther, I think Wisconsin should do whatever it can tonight to give Jackson as much confidence in his game as possible heading into the tournament season. For me, he is the Badgers' "x-factor," and the guy that could hold the keys to Wisconsin having a long NCAA Tournament run or not.
40% the magic number
This is an awfully simplistic key, but if the Badgers shoot better than 40 percent from the field in tonight's game, they'll go home winners.
Wisconsin has eclipsed that 40 percent mark in each of its eight consecutive wins, but Nebraska has ratcheted up its defensive prowess of late, so hitting that number might be difficult today. The Huskers have held their last eight opponents below 40 percent shooting from the field, and they're 7-1 in those games.
For whatever reason, the Badgers have looked comfortable with their jump shots on the road this year, and I think that has to continue tonight if they're going to enter the conference tournament on a high note.
Keep Shavon Shields' impact at a minimum
Terran Petteway is the star and the Husker that gets the most press, but Shields' play has been more directly linked to Nebraska's win/loss results this season.
As the Huskers second leading scorer and best rebounder, Shields makes his presence most felt when he's aggressive attacking the basket on the offensive end. So, as I've said a couple of times lately, "here's looking at you Josh Gasser." We can expect to see Gasser start on Petteway, but I think he should get some possessions defending Shields as well.
Gasser is arguably the best defender in the conference and a solid rebounding guard, so he's the clear best option for limiting Shields' impact in the scoring column and on the glass. Plus, when Gasser keeps a star at bay, his defense funnels into hot shooting on the offensive end, and a few threes from the redshirt junior wouldn't hurt this evening.
One final note on Shields-in nine of Nebraska's 11 losses this season, he's been held below his 12.2 ppg scoring average. If Shields doesn't get that average against Wisconsin, I don't see the Badgers losing.
Prediction: This game will be close for its entirety, but I think the Badgers simply find a way to get the job done. Clutch free throws or a late jumper from Trae seals another gritty road win for UW. Wisconsin 73, Nebraska 68.