For all the jokes we've made about Nebrasketball this season, we must give credit where credit is due: Tim Miles has gotten quite a bit of improvement out of his young squad, culminating in the Cornhusker's upset of the 7th seeded Purdue Boilermakers in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament, 57-55. Nebraska rode strong performances from forward Brandon Ubel (16 pts, 8 rebounds and 5 assists) and freshman swingman Shavon Shields (a game high 19 points and 5 rebounds) to overcome the cold-shooting Boilermakers, who were only 50% from the free throw line and 16.7% from long range. Their prize for extending their season another day? A tussle with the #2 team on your bracket, (#1 in our hearts) the Ohio State Buckeyes.
Nebraska and Ohio State have played twice this year. The first game, the Big Ten opener for Ohio State, couldn't have been gone much better. Deshaun Thomas single handedly outscored Nebraska in the first half as the Buckeye clobbered Nebraska, 70-44, in Columbus. Thomas had 22 after essentially taking the second half off, while Lenzelle Smith Jr. added 17. Nebraska shot only 30% for the game and had only a single player score in double figures.
Many expected the rubber match in Lincoln to be a blowout of similar proportions, but like we've seen so many times in the Big Ten this season, winning on the road proved to be difficult. Ohio State had to sweat to beat out Nebraska, 63-56, the second time around, in a game where the outcome wasn't really settled until the last few minutes. Ohio State shot under 40%, thanks in part to a monster defensive performance from robust Brazilian center Andre Almeida, whose three first half blocks matched his entire Big Ten season output to date. Thomas struggled to mightily to score in the first half and finished with only 15, while Aaron Craft added 14 and Lenzelle Smith leading the way with 21. David Rivers paced a more balanced Nebraska attack with 13.
What can we learn from those two meetings? For one thing, we know that Nebraska can't really score on Ohio State. As impressive as the growth over the course of the season from Shields has been, Nebraska has absolutely no single scoring option that can reliably overcome the Buckeye's perimeter defensive advantage. Brandon Ubel, in particular, has struggled to establish positioning, and if Ray Gallegos or Dylan Talley aren't hitting a lot of long range shots, Nebraska will *have* to keep the score very low to have a chance. Actually, Nebraska will need to keep the score low anyway, since there is virtually no chance the Cornhuskers can break 65 points on Ohio State barring an epic collapse.
Because Nebraska lacks a lot of pure shooting, it will become even more important for Ohio State to dominate the defensive glass. Despite having a size advantage and multiple capable rebounders, Nebraska actually outrebounded OSU by 4 in the second meeting, and held a commanding 13-6 offensive rebound advantage. Ohio State's bigs are more talented and more athletic, so it is imperative that they stay out of foul trouble and remain focused. If they can limit Nebraska to only one shot opportunity, it will give them a lot of leeway on the offensive end in case their own jumpers aren't falling.
Smith Jr. may actually be the offensive x-factor for OSU in this matchup. He's averaging 19 points per game against Nebraska this year, and is shooting three pointers better than nearly everybody on the team right now. Smith is going to get open looks against Nebraska, both from long range and in the paint, so converting them will be critical.
On paper, this game should not be a big problem. Baring a melt down allowing Nebraska to manufacture tons of points in transition (or off of second or third chances), the Cornhuskers shouldn't be able to score enough points to keep up with even a modest offensive production from Ohio State. Taking care of the little things, forcing low percentage shots and getting Deshaun into a comfort zone should be more than enough for Ohio State to advance to the B1G semifinals, which ought to clinch at least a 4 seed for the Buckeyes.
Nebraska fans ought to feel good about the last few games. They've stolen a few wins and were competitive against some very good basketball teams. They've already proven they can hang with Ohio State when they aren't playing their best basketball, and it's possible that they catch the Buckeyes looking ahead to a possible matchup with Michigan State or Iowa. That being said, it would take a nearly flawless performance from Nebraska and a meltdown for Ohio State for the Bucks to drop this game.
Holy Diver. Look for Ohio State to start a little slow, but overwhelm Nebraska later in the game. Ohio State is peaking at the right time, and ain't nobody got time for upsets at this level. We like Ohio State to win, 67-52.