This season's first matchup, brings along with it something rather unusual for CU-Nebraska in basketball: greater implications. Not only are the Buffs legitimately tied for the conference lead, but I fear that, should CU fall tonight, much of the goodwill built up among the national press and the victory-starved fanbase may disappear. It's a constant struggle for respect for this Buffs basketball team, and while they haven't been fluking their way to their 3-0 in conference start, that may very well become the impression should they drop the game to the Huskers tonight (a program with even less year-to-year national respect than CU). It's an unfortunate reality since Nebraska is no pushover this year. I may not agree with kenpom.com in saying that they are a top-40 team, but I recognize their feisty nature, and I hope CU brings their best efforts this evening.
CU comes in hoping to continue the good mojo that's driven them to their best start in 14 years. Nebraska hopes to finally breakthrough against a good opponent, as they are coming off of scaring the bejesus out of KU (in Lawrence, mind you) where the Huskers lead most of the game before falling in the end. Make sure you tell the boss that you're leaving work early, 'cause CU hoops hits the air tonight at 5pm MT on the Deuce (ESPN2). I know there is a watch party at Blake Street Tavern in Denver that I won't be able to make, but it sounds like fun if you're looking for a place to watch the game. However you consume the game this evening, make sure you click through to read my full Husker preview.
|Burks and the boys look to keep the good times rolling in their final trip to Lincoln.|
Click Below for the Preview
Opponents Season so far - Defense, defense, defense. That's all your really need to know about this Huskers basketball team. They hold opponents under their season offensive averages like it's their job. In fact they're second in the nation in defensive field goal percentage (35.1%, juuuust behind FSU by a tenth of a point). They do this by slowing the game down massively, on both sides of the ball, and try to take teams out of their comfort zone. Basketball is a tempo game, and if your opponent can take you out of the one you're most comfortable with, then things start to fall apart. Additionally, they limit offensive rebounds (5th in the nation in offensive rebounding percentage), and make possessions very precious
Offensively, they take very few shots, averaging fewer than 70 point/game, preferring to focus on slowing the game down. However, what shots they do take are usually good ones as they make nearly 48% of shots from the field. When you are holding your opponent near 35%, this is usually enough to at least keep you in the game against a tough opponent, if not win it outright.
On the season the Huskers are 13-4, rolling through their non-conference schedule outside of their holiday tournament, where they dropped 2 of 3 games. This non-con run would be impressive if they hadn't been inside of the state of Nebraska for every match-up other than their trip to Puerto Rico for the aforementioned holiday tournament. In fact, NU is perfect at home, but win-less in true road games. For the record, in 3 home games against "name opponents" (USC, Creighton, and ISU), Nebraska has only won by an average of 2.7 points, and CU is going to be the best team they will have played in the Devaney Center (Yes, their basketball arena is named after their former football coach).
In conference, the Huskers have had to face reality: not all games can be played at home. Having barely tipped ISU at the buzzer 63-62 in their conference opener, the Huskers have proceeded to lose their first 2 true road games of the year at Mizzou and Kansas (talk about a wake-up). Mizzou was frustrated a bit early-on, but eventually put the Huskers away. Shrugging that game off, NU then gave Kansas all the Jayhawks could handle; last Saturday, while CU was coming back to beat OSU, the Huskers were leading the vaunted Jayhawks for nearly the whole game. Finally, in the waning moments, KU pulled ahead, and the home fans breathed a sigh of relief.
|The Huskers tenacious D nearly broke the vaunted Jayhawks. From: The Kansas City Star|
Unfortunately for Buff nation, the game tonight is in Lincoln, but could there be an emotional hangover from nearly beating the #2 team in the land on the road?
Coaching - The master-mind behind the tenacious Husker D is Doc Sadler. The fiery Arkansas native is in his 5th season leading the Husker program. Doc parlayed a pretty good run as the coach of UTEP into the marquee position of Huskers head basketball coach (sarcasm intended). Not sure why he hasn't aimed higher, but there it is. He is a proud proponent of a very slow-tempo style that, while boring to many viewers, can keep the often-over matched Huskers in ballgames they'd otherwise be blown out of.
|Doc's had to work hard over the past 4 years to keep the often over-match Huskers afloat.|
It's of no small note that he put together that light-on-travel cupcake home schedule this season. After 4 years of few results, and only 2 short-lived NIT berths to his name, he's desperate to put some wins on the board and try and make a random run at the Tournament (probably in hopes of getting the fuck out out Lincoln). At 13-4 this year he's still got an outside shot, but I wonder if Nebraska can keep that pace up now that they not only have to travel, but play decent teams as well...
Key Players - This is a slightly larger team than CU has played so far in conference. 5 players are listed over 6-9, including leading scorer Jorge Brian Diaz. The big 6-11 sophomore center chips in 10/4 per night on a team that barely breaks out of its collective jog on most possessions. He'll be a bear for CU to guard, and I wouldn't be surprised if he gets much more than his season averages.
|Diaz will be a tough matchup for CU tonight|
The other threat is 6-3 senior guard Lance Jeter. The feisty Jeter drops just over 10 points a game while also contributing near 4 rebounds/night from the guard spot. Defensively he's a bastard as he gets over 2 steals/night.
One other big man to watch-out for is reserve center Andre Almeida. He's a gigantic 6-11, 310lbs, and gets 1.5 blocks/night in relatively few minutes. Look for him to eat up not only the block against CU, but possibly even a bench chair if they aren't all nailed down.
Prediction - The whole Husker gameplan is cemented around slowing the pace down and taking their opponents out of their comfort zone. In a word: frustration. CU loves to run, and we saw what happens when they can't in the first half of the OSU game; the Buffs take bad shots early in the shot clock, and otherwise try to force the issue. They need to stay composed and confident if they hope to win.
My prescription for this game is to pick your spots. The rebounding advantage from the first 3 conference games may not necessarily be there, so the Buffs need to run when they can as opposed to when they want to. CU can't allow the heads to drop if Nebraska gets them out of rhythm early. Just don't force things and get back to limiting turnovers. CU is more athletic, better skilled, and truly battle tested, and that should shine through in the end.
Kenpom only gives CU a 24% chance at winning this game, but I still contend that Nebraska's cupcake home-laden schedule has propped up their season so far. That said, this will be a tough scrap, and a test of CU's efficient offense; I see it as more of a 50-50 prop. CU will struggle at times during this game. Open looks won't be easy to find, and the well-conditioned Buffaloes may not even break into a full sweat considering the probable lethargic pace of the game. They just have to stay focused and pounce when given the opportunity. A sharpshooter like Levi having a big game off the bench could be the difference between victory and defeat.
All considered, I still like the Buffs to win. The Huskers have built a load of confidence through their weak-ass, all-home non-conference schedule, but CU will be the best team they've seen in Lincoln to date. It'll be ugly, but a win is a win. CU 68 - NU 63.