LINCOLN — About 90 minutes before tipoff Saturday afternoon, freshman Michael Jacobson was getting shoved and slapped as he maneuvered in the paint.
This sort of drill has become routine for Nebraska’s undersized forward. Fighting for position. Perfecting various post moves. Rolling properly to the hoop off screens.
Through it all, Jacobson welcomes any contact from a willing assistant coach or team manager, hopeful that his commitment to the fundamentals will make a difference when he’s colliding with opposing Big Ten bigs.
And at least lately, the work appears to have produced positive results.
Jacobson has scored 9.8 points and grabbed 6.3 rebounds per game in his last four contests, including a 10-point effort in Saturday’s 70-54 win against Penn State. He averaged 3.8 points and grabbed 4.0 rebounds in his first nine conference starts.
“My confidence has built a little bit,” Jacobson said. “I’ve been working hard with coaches, watching film, doing individual workouts. Trying to get better. Overall my confidence has grown and I’m playing more aggressive.”
That was evident Saturday.
It was Jacobson’s one-on-one, driving layup that ended a 9-0 Penn State run and snapped NU’s eight-possession scoreless drought late in the first half. His pump-fake sent the defender leaping out of the way, an adherence to a scouting report that referenced the Nittany Lions’ 16 blocks in a victory over Nebraska last year.
Three possessions later, Jacobson swished a right-handed jump hook over a 6-foot-10 forward. He missed a short jumper 45 seconds later, but hit two free throws the next time down the floor.
They are plays the Waukee, Iowa, native likely doesn’t make three months ago.
“I feel like I’ve grown a lot,” Jacobson said. “I used to be all perimeter, on the outside, looking and cutting and moving, trying to find a shot. So it’s been good to get that inside game, and try to become a more complete player.”
Coach Tim Miles is gaining trust in him, so much so that he’s considering playing Jacobson as a power forward. If not this season, then next.
“I know his game, and I feel more strongly about what he can do,” Miles said. “He’s more aware of the energy and the force he’s got to play with. But he’s learned some hard lessons — like at Purdue.”
That Jan. 30 debacle at Purdue was the day Jacobson missed all four of his shots, grabbed two rebounds and stood by helplessly as the Boilermakers’ two 7-footers turned the interior battle into a dunk contest.
It may have been a turning point for Jacobson, though. He heard all about it from his screaming coach in the locker room afterward and again back at the NU facility following film study two days later.
Yes, Jacobson’s learning a new position. And yes, the 18-year-old is still figuring out the subtle tactics it takes to survive in the paint. The lean 6-8 youngster regularly has a decided height disadvantage, and at least for the remainder of 2016, Jacobson likely can’t consistently outmuscle seasoned post players.
Jacobson can control his attitude, though. He can bring a fighter’s mentality every night. That was Miles’ point.
“He just challenged me,” Jacobson said. “You can’t do that if you’re going to be a starting 5 in the Big Ten. You can’t be giving up like that. I knew I had to work hard. I had to find ways, even though I’m not as big as these guys — I’ve got to find ways to get it done.”
His opponents won’t hold back. Purdue centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas combined for 45 points on 19 of 23 shooting.
Jacobson will see those two again March 1. Up next, though, is a Wednesday night date with Indiana’s talented 6-10 freshman Thomas Bryant. The challenges just keep coming.
“It’s a grown man’s league,” Jacobson said. “You’ve got to be ready to go every single night — because if you take a play off, you’re going to get embarrassed.”
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