Over the last two weeks, nobody has been hotter than Wisconsin and Nebraska. The Badgers and Cornhuskers have combined to go 15-1 over that stretch. This is the heavyweight pre-tournament Big Ten matchup our forefathers never saw coming.
Sophomore swingman Terran Petteway has been an offensive revelation for Tim Miles and the Huskers, scoring 17.8 points per game to lead the conference. At the same time, Nebraska (18-11, 10-7 Big Ten) has improved on the defensive-minded approach it developed last year, ranking second in the conference in defensive efficiency.
The threat to Wisconsin (25-5, 12-5) is finally real. The Cornhuskers are fighting for an NCAA berth and have good players this time. Besides Petteway, himself a Texas Tech transfer, Nebraska boasts 6'10" Walter Pitchford, a former Top 150 recruit who signed with Florida out of high school. He played sparingly as a freshman, then sat out last season transferring to Lincoln. Forward Shavon Shields has exploded for outings of 28 and 33 points so far this season.
On top of all that, Nebraska is primed for continued success. David Rivers the only upperclassman among the starting five. Nebraska opened a brand new arena this season and the fan base is going bonkers. Scary. David McGee of Corn Nation joins us today to talk about the exciting new frontier for #Nebrasketball.
B5Q: Terran Petteway has a shot at the conference scoring title heading into this weekend, but some of the buzz has died down after few quiet games. Still, now's the time to make your case for Petteway as the Big Ten Player of the Year.
Corn Nation (David): Well, leading scorer in the best conference in the country seems like a good place to start. Although he might have fallen a tenth behind Harris after Wednesday. (Ed. note: Nope, he's all good.) The guy's hit an unbelievable amount of clutch, momentum-changing shots throughout the season. He's been the leader on a team that has been lacking that for more than a decade. He sets the tone for this team on and off the court and has taken a team with less than zero expectations and has them on the cusp of something this program hasn't seen in a very long time.
B5Q: Nebraska looks quite different as a team than the one Wisconsin fans might remember from last season. Have the Cornhuskers changed their style of play to adapt to the newer, exciting pieces at head coach Tim Miles' disposal?
CN: Heck, they look different from the team we watched in early January. In terms of style of play, no they really haven't changed their style that much. They run a high ball screen offense and try to attack cracks in the offense when they present themselves. They had been a little more motion-heavy last year, but not as much this year. Really, the biggest differences are two things:
1. They have talented basketball players who can make plays. That may cause a few people to look at that sentence a little cross-eyed, but in the past, the Huskers have had either guys who were good basketball players but lacked athleticism or freak athletes who lacked basketball skills. Rarely have they had the two in the same package. Now they've got a few guys like that. It's made a world of difference.
2. They've embraced defense. Early in the year they couldn't slow anybody down. Since Deverell Biggs was dismissed from the team eight games ago, they've embraced their roles and changed their mentality and have made it very, very difficult for teams to score against them. They've held each of their last eight opponents to below 38% shooting. It's no coincidence they've gone out and won seven of those games.
B5Q: Now that Nebraska has clinched a winning conference record, beating Wisconsin would clinch an NCAA bid. If the Huskers lose, do they need one or two wins in the league tournament to solidify their case for an invite?
CN: Probably. Maybe even 2. I'm not 100% convinced winning on Sunday seals the deal. A lot is going to have to go their way in other conference tournaments before we can say they're a lock.
B5Q: Since turning its season around, the only surprising losses for Nebraska have come when it just couldn't score enough points. And even then, the Huskers have won some low-scoring games because of its defense. What makes Nebraska's defense so effective?
CN: Nothing fancy. They've packed in the lane, slowed down transition offenses like Indiana and cleaned up the glass. Remember, they were the worst rebounding team in the conference when B1G play started. Since then, they've been one of the best defensive rebounding teams in the league. Teams aren't getting many second chances. A lot of it is a mentality shift. Everyone's bought in. That wasn't always the case early in the season. It is now. That might sound a little simplistic, but that's the reality.
B5Q: Beyond Petteway, which supporting player is more important to this team's success, Shavon Shields or Walter Pitchford?
CN: Sorry for the cop-out answer, but there isn't one that's more important than the other. The three of them play off each other. They've got a play maker on all levels. When one has an off night, usually one of the others steps up. The one time all three struggled, they lost.
B5Q: I'm hearing Nebraska's brand new stadium, Pinnacle Bank Arena, being referred to as "The Vault" now that the Huskers are officially a tough out in their own building -- 14-1 on the year. Have you been to a game this season? If you can, tell us about the place and what makes it better for the program and if it actually is more intimidating from a noise standpoint than the Devaney Sports Center.
CN: I've been to all but one game this season. This is somewhat of a complex answer. There are a lot of factors at play. For starters, let's get one thing clear, the Devaney Center wasn't an intimidating place to play. It wasn't that great of a venue for college basketball. Part of it was location. There wasn't anything around it. It was just basketball and the product on the court wasn't good enough to make up for it. In PBA, it's right downtown and was a catalyst for development around it. There are restaurants and bars and entertainment venues, even a public ice skating rink four blocks to the south of the arena. It's the place to be. It's a destination. It's a great place to go on a date or spend the night out with friends. That was never the case at the Devaney Center.
So, now that it's a cool place to be, people are coming out to games. It helps that they weren't terrible last year and that ticket prices were exceedingly affordable. The other big difference between PBA and the Devaney Center is the product on the floor. There's legitimate talent on this roster. That hasn't always been the case for this program.
This fan base is still learning how to be basketball fans. They're definitely more vocal and active then they were at BDSC and yes, the difference is striking. Season tickets for basketball used to be tied to football tickets, meaning that you had the option to get basketball tickets for free or reduced cost for the biggest football boosters. They eliminated that when they made the move to the arena. That got rid of a lot of the dead weight. By and large, the fans that really want to be there, are there. On Sunday, I think we'll see what they're capable of. This team has fed off of the energy of the home crowd all season. It should be at an all-time high for what is looking like the biggest home game in the past 20 years at least. Maybe ever.
B5Q: New Zealand native Tai Webster was a guy I thought might make a big impact for Nebraska as a freshman. It appears as though I was way off, as the rookie point guard has really struggled with turnovers and shooting accuracy. Are there signs that Webster will develop into a really good player or do you think the hype was blown out of proportion?
CN: Definitely. I've seen a lot of people write him off as being a bust. That's a mistake. You have to remember that he was barely 18 when he got to Lincoln. It's true he had a lot of international basketball experience, but it's one thing when you always got to go home after those tournaments and mom would cook for you and sleep in your own bed, it's another to move halfway around the world, to a different culture, living on your own for the first time, be a good student and learn a new style of basketball strikingly different from everything you've ever played.
This kid had this almost mythological expectations built up for him, expected to carry the fortunes of a woebegone program. There aren't many that can handle those expectations. He's tried to handle it admirably. Started from day one. He's shown flashes of being the player so many, myself included, expected him to be. But you get moments where he'll make this ridiculously slick play that few players would attempt, much less look easy. If you look closely, you can see signs of him getting more confident and comfortable, he just hasn't put it all together in a game yet. A summer here will be good for him where he can work on his game without being in the spotlight. He's a better shooter than he's shown. He lacks a little confidence. He's talked about the speed of the game and strength of the players being more than he expected. This is a year of adjustment for him. I expect he'll be much improved over the past couple of years.
B5Q: Care to make a prediction for Sunday's game?
CN: Man, it's going to be something else. I'll be writing about what this game means to Nebraska and how in many ways its an unprecedented game in Husker hoops history. Win and they're likely in. As far as I can tell, there's never been one of these games at home for Nebraska. The excitement around town is off the charts. I've never been around this much enthusiasm for Nebraska basketball in my 15 years living here. It will be bonkers. They're calling for a "No Sit Sunday". This Nebraska team has acted very un-Nebrasketball like. In the past they haven't risen to the challenge. They've folded under the pressure. This team is different. They're embracing their moment. They're not afraid of the spotlight and I think Sunday is the culmination of that. Wisconsin might be the best team they've faced this year. One way or the other, this game will live in Nebrasketball lore. We'll be talking about it for decades to come. Will it be a missed opportunity or the start of something great? Based on what this team has done so far this year, I think they rise to the challenge once again. The team has remained poised and focused while the fan base has lost its collective mind. Look for that to all pour out Sunday. This has Big Ten game of the year potential written all over it. NU wins. NU clinches the #4 seed in Indy. This game goes down in the annals of Husker Hoop-dom. Tim Miles becomes a legend and best friends with the Brinks truck driver.
Thanks David for the insightful answers. Follow him on Twitter @dpm917 in anticipation for Sunday evening, with coverage starting at 6:30 p.m. CST on BTN. Also, check out the Corn Nation peeps @CornNation.
Projected Starting Lineups
|Frank Kaminsky, Jr.||C||Walter Pitchford, So.|
|Sam Dekker, So.||F||Shavon Shields, So.|
|Josh Gasser, Jr.||G / F||David Rivers, Jr.|
|Ben Brust, Sr.||G||Terran Petteway, So.|
|Traevon Jackson, Jr.||G||Tai Webster, Fr.|
KenPom win probability: 58% (67-65 W) 63 possessions
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