Wisconsin dropped its first conference game of the year last weekend and subsequently dropped to No. 7 in the AP poll this week. To avoid any further progress toward repeating last year's midseason swoon, the Badgers only need to do one thing -- win a home game.
Nebraska (10-6, 2-2 Big Ten) doesn't plan on making it easy though. The Cornhuskers bring essentially the same team to Madison that roughed up the Badgers in Lincoln in last season's league finale. That means another steady dose of junior wings Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields. The Huskers also boast good size everywhere besides point guard (Benny Parker is 5'9") because they recently returned two injured players to their rotation up front.
Now that Frank Kaminsky is back to full health for Wisconsin (15-2, 3-1), all eyes will be on Bronson Koenig to see how he adapts to being the man in charge of the potent Badger offense with Traevon Jackson out for the foreseeable future.
I asked David McGee of Nebraska blog Corn Nation for his thoughts on the season so far and Thursday's game.
B5Q: Things were looking bleak for Nebraska one week ago, sitting at 8-6 overall and 0-2 in Big Ten play. The Cornhuskers have bounced back now with a pair of wins at home but still have the stigma of an embarrassing December hanging over them. Do you feel like Nebraska still has the same warts that were exposed early or does the team seem like it's starting to click?
Corn Nation (David): Well, yeah, they still don't get much production from the point, but almost the moment that Moses Abraham and Leslee Smith returned to the court you saw the countenance of the team improve. It was like the whole gang was finally back together. Everyone was able to return to their regular roles and knew what they were supposed to do. The round peg was finally being put into the round hole. While Abraham, who was out for seven games, and Smith, who had missed the whole season, were out, they just couldn't get things to work right. The spacing is better, the defense is better, the rebounding is better. So, yeah, I think they're closer now to the team we thought we were going to see, but they're not quite there yet, but I'm confident the team they've got now wouldn't have lost a couple of the games they did.
B5Q: Back on Jan. 5, Miles said he was expecting injured big men Leslee Smith and Moses Abraham to possibly miss the Wisconsin game. However, both players returned last week to play limited minutes in the last two Nebraska wins. How healthy are these guys and what kind of a boost are the Huskers getting with that added depth?
CN: I think they're as healthy as they're gonna be. I expect it might take Smith a bit to get back into playing shape, but to my surprise, he didn't seem to really show any ill-effects from the ACL injury he suffered back in July. That's a great sign if he's confident playing on that knee. I doubt we'll see him at 100%, though. Abraham is a very good recruiter and post defender. The Huskers missed that terribly while he was out. There was a play in the first half vs. Illinois where the wing drove. A week ago, he'd basically have had a free run at the rim for either a relative easy lay in or a momentum changing dunk. But instead he found Abraham waiting for him. He contested the shot and forced the Illinois player to throw up a wild shot, which clanged off the rim. That's what he brings that NU missed so terribly.
More Preview Q&A
More Preview Q&A
B5Q: After Terran Petteway's breakout first season in Lincoln, he's not been as efficient a player as a junior. In fact, whenever I watch him, he's either on the bench in crunch time due to foul trouble or turning the ball over. Petteway is still scoring a lot and his assist rate has gone way up, but his free throw shooting and offensive rebounding are down. Separate fact from fiction for us -- is Petteway a different player than he was last year or is the spotlight simply on him more now?
CN: You know, I haven't gone back and looked at Petteway's non-conference efficiency last year and compared it to this one. He did basically the same thing last year, where in the first half he did way more than he needed to, sometimes to the detriment of the team. He did that early this year too. In some sense, he is what he is. He's unafraid. He's wants the ball in his hands in the big moment and more often than not, he comes through in those situations. You need guys like that. Sure, we'd love to see him be more efficient, but with some slight variance, he's basically the same player he was last year. He's gonna take his 15 to 20 shots, it's just are they going to be going at the rim or will they be on the perimeter. NU's generally in good shape if half (or more) are attacking the rim.
B5Q: Similarly, with so many key players returning this season for Tim Miles, this Nebraska team looks very similar to last year's squad. But the team has really struggled to score at times. How much has the departure of Ray Gallegos and/or the lack of a reliable third guard hurt the Huskers offensively?
CN: It's not as simple as just saying Gallegos is gone. Pitchford was the third option last year, especially down the stretch. He's struggled mightily to start the year, but has started to come around since conference play began. The Huskers will need that to continue if they're going to get where they want to go.
Now, Gallegos wasn't great last year, it was his junior year he was the more consistent threat, but that junior year led teams to guard him last year. They haven't replaced that threat yet. There's no threat of anyone being able to beat a team on the perimeter right now. That's made things more difficult for Petteway and Shields to find room. Add in that they've basically played without any front court players the past four weeks. They really struggled to get things figured out in that stretch offensively. Now with Smith and Abraham back, they can throw it into the paint. They're not big time threats down there but they'll beat you if you don't guard them. And that's valuable, not to mention what it brings on the other end of the floor, too.
B5Q: Thursday's contest should a heavyweight matchup in the frontcourt. Shavon Shields (26 points) was the guy who tore up Wisconsin last season with his slashing ability, but Walter Pitchford also pitched in with his inside-out game. Though Pitchford has struggled this year, much more so than Petteway, at the very least he's an athletic big man to help check Frank Kaminsky. Throw in 6'7" David Rivers and there is a lot of length for the Huskers. Who will each guy match up with defensively and which battle is the key to winning this game in your opinion?
CN: I'm not familiar enough with the Wisconsin roster to say how they'll match everybody up. What I do know is that they'll have as good a plan for handling Kaminsky as anyone will throw at him. I'd expect they'll throw a lot of guys at him. I don't expect Rivers to be on him much, but Pitchford, Abraham and Smith will all get their turn and I'd expect them to try doubling down from all over the place to try and keep him off balance. That might not work considering how good Kaminsky is, but I expect they'll throw the kitchen sink at him. That said, they're a top 10 defense without doing overly exotic things as it is. They'll be ready. We'll see if they're good enough to slow him down.
B5Q: The postseason ended on sour note for Nebraska last year at a time when excitement for the program seemed to be at an all-time high. With a new season came some injuries and the magic of Pinnacle Bank Arena wore off quickly with back-to-back home losses to Creighton and Incarnate Word. Have you noticed any drop in fan support or lack of buzz around town that could have been a hangover effect from any of these things?
CN: There's still some novelty to it. Tickets are still hard to come by. People are still excited about going to games. I'm having people ask if I have extra ticket for the first time in my life. I've had season tickets for ten years. I've never had this happen. That said, there is some expectation now among the new fans. There's a tendency to treat every game like a football game. There's still a learning curve with the fanbase that we're still navigating. When they lost to Incarnate Word, I think some people thought that was the end of the season. Well, they're in the top 100 in the RPI. Who knows how long that'll last when they get into conference play, but it's turning out that IW may not be the worst team in college basketball nor will it be seen as a debilitating loss when it comes selection time. We're still figuring out how all this works, but there's still excitement around the program.
B5Q: Let's get a prediction on the final score. Traevon Jackson is out for Wisconsin, but the Badgers are at home. Who do you like?
CN: In some sense, this game shapes up a lot like when NU went to East Lansing and caught the Spartans a little short handed and banged up. Unlike that game, I don't think the Badgers take NU lightly like MSU did, but I think the Huskers hang in there as Wisconsin won't have quite figure out how to fully compensate for Jackson being out. I look for this one to be within a bucket when we get to the under 8 in the second half. Ultimately, I see Kaminsky and Dekker being too much for Shields and Petteway and Wisconsin wins a game much closer than Vegas suggests. I'll say the Badgers pull away with free throws down the stretch, 74-66. (Insert the requisite and often disingenuous "I'd gladly be proven wrong" caveat here). Good luck and Go Big Red!
Thanks to David for helping out with our preview again this year. For all the Nebraska sports coverage you could want, try @CornNation on Twitter. Thursday night's game tips off at 8 p.m., broadcast live on ESPN2.
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