LINCOLN — Something’s going to give Thursday night.
Nebraska is a one-point underdog but is barreling toward a school-record 21st straight win at home. Sixth-ranked Michigan State has won 19 straight Big Ten games and hasn’t lost since just after Thanksgiving.
“Yeah, this is awesome,” junior forward Isaiah Roby said. “I mean playing a top team on your home court? It’s awesome.”
The 15-2 Spartans roll into town after Nebraska’s win over No. 25 Indiana on Monday, pumping an extra dose of excitement into the program.
Less than two weeks ago, Nebraska was coming off two straight losses to Maryland and Iowa. But now, Nebraska could pull off back-to-back upsets of ranked teams for the first time since 2004 to all but solidify itself in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a huge opportunity for us,” Roby said.
With that said, coach Tim Miles has had a hard time dreaming of anything past Thursday. He started watching Michigan State film even before the Indiana game, and said Wednesday he wasn’t entirely sure who Nebraska played after Thursday. The Spartans require complete and total focus.
“You gotta fight these guys,” Miles said. “I mean this in the most complimentary way, they are like sharks. If you put a little blood in the water, man, it’s over. It’s a feeding frenzy.”
Coach Tom Izzo’s team can dominate on both ends of the floor. The Spartans are the third-most efficient offense in the country and ninth most efficient defense.
Michigan State is sixth in effective field-goal percentage and sixth in field-goal percentage defense. On average, the Spartans win by 18.7 points per game. They lead the league in rebounding margin, assists and blocked shots, among other categories.
“There’s just not many weaknesses with Michigan State,” Miles said.
A small weakness for MSU in the Miles era, though, has been Nebraska. Four times Nebraska has played Michigan State when it was ranked. The last time was a season ago, when No. 3 MSU manhandled Nebraska 86-57 in East Lansing.
“The first thing (the players) requested is that last year’s tape does not exist,” Miles said.
But they could watch Nebraska’s two upsets over Michigan State. The 72-71 win in 2015-16 when the Spartans were No. 11 or the 60-51 victory in 2013-14 over No. 9 Michigan State.
Both those games were in East Lansing. But in both, the Huskers were underdogs against Michigan State teams that would go on to win at least one game in the NCAA tournament.
And this might be the best Michigan State team Miles has played in the Big Ten.
Cassius Winston runs the Spartans from the point and leads the league in assists (7.4 per game). He also leads the team with 17.6 points per game.
“An elite point guard,” Miles said.
The Spartans also are among the biggest teams in the country. Junior Nick Ward, 6-foot-9, 245 pounds, scores 16.6 a game with 6.9 rebounds. Kenny Goins, 6-7, 230, averages 9.4 rebounds per game.
Nebraska’s been anemic rebounding against large teams. Penn State had 21 offensive rebounds. That can’t happen again, Roby said.
“With a team like (Michigan State), where their 4 and 5s are pretty big, they could both be 5-men technically, we’re gonna look for a lot of help from our guards,” Roby said.
Though Michigan State is rolling, so is Nebraska. After the Penn State and Indiana wins, Nebraska is playing a bit freer, Roby said.
At Iowa, guys weren’t talking on the court. Miles said everyone looked stressed out during the Penn State game.
But after the Indiana win, the excitement and momentum is back.
Miles wants his guys to fight back down on the block. And in general.
Against Michigan State, as an underdog, you have to come out swinging. Especially if Nebraska wants to make history with its 21st straight home win, and add a gold star to its tournament résumé.
“It’s a pretty remarkable run by both teams,” Miles said. “One of them is going to end.”
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