Nebraska is set for a Big Ten road game Saturday afternoon at Northwestern. Here's a preview of the matchup:
When: 3:30 p.m. Saturday
Where: Welsh-Ryan Arena, Evanston, Illinois
Radio: 590 AM (Omaha), 1400 AM (Lincoln)
2019-20 record: 5-9, 0-4 Big Ten
Offensive efficiency (KenPom): 123rd
Defensive efficiency (KenPom): 96th
Trending: Maybe it was too much good at once. Northwestern was the nation’s Cinderella, with ESPN pundits wearing purple live on air during talk shows, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus was in the stands for every game to watch her son. Since that 2017 run to the NCAA tournament, Northwestern has regressed back to a bottom feeder. Chris Collins’ team won 24 games in the 2016-17 season, but since November 2018, the Wildcats have won 18. So things aren’t great. The Wildcats are one of the youngest teams in the country, they don’t light you up offensively (last in the Big Ten in points per game), they’re so-so defensively and have lost five straight games. But a few have been pretty close. Northwestern lost at Indiana 66-62 and took Michigan State far in a 77-72 loss. Losses to DePaul and Hartford in between Big Ten play don’t bolster a ton of confidence.
Players to watch
» Ryan Young is a 6-foot-10 freshman with 10.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game. Young is a lean 235 pounds and doesn’t venture outside the paint all that much to shoot. His best game is a 25-point, 12-rebound effort against SIU-Edwardsville.
» Pat Spencer is tied for fifth in the Big Ten with 4.1 assists a game. The 6-foot-3 senior is playing more as conference play rolls on. He had 22 points on 18 shots in the loss at Minnesota, and 15 points in 35 minutes at Indiana. But he's another non-factor behind the arc.
» Miller Kopp is a 6-foot-7, 210-pound sophomore scoring 12.6 points per game. He had 20 points against Boston College and 21 against DePaul, but he had 0 points in 20 minutes against SIU-Edwardsville. He’s much better from 3 this year, up from 31.9% to 43.5%. He's a good free throw shooter, too, at 86.7%
Three keys for Nebraska
1. Northwestern is 11th in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage at 31%. Nebraska is tied for first in 3-point defense, keeping teams to 27.9% from behind the arc. So cancel out Northwestern’s deep shot. Nebraska’s best defensive games have been keeping teams out of the paint — Purdue, Iowa — and letting bad shooters shoot. Might be able to copy a bit of that defense Saturday. But there’s always that possibility the Wildcats get hot or find rhythm elsewhere. They made 9 3s against Michigan State to stay in the game, and only 4 against Indiana but were still in the game. But it's safe to assume Nebraska will let Northwestern shoot from deep.
2. Northwestern really isn’t that big. They have three guys at 6-foot-10, but all are underclassmen who are still getting used to the physicality of Division-I basketball. Even with those guys, Northwestern is last in the Big Ten in blocked shots per game with 2.4. They’re not a great rebounding team, either. Sometimes it’s tough to get going from 3 on the road, so Nebraska could attack the rim, draw some fouls, get to the line and get points in the paint to establish a rhythm.
3. With as fragile as this Nebraska team is, the coaches feel like the first five minutes really set the tone for the entire game. If the first few shots go in, the team’s confidence rises and the defensive intensity is there. If NU is down 8 or 9 by the first TV timeout, and they are 1 for 10 from the field, the defensive end lags, guys get selfish and take bad shots, and the wheels fall off. So starting strong — especially on the road — is important.
KenPom: Northwestern wins 75-69.
Chris Heady’s take: I mean, I picked Iowa to win by 19. So what in the world do I really know? A few things stand out here. This is Northwestern’s best chance at a Big Ten win for some time. They have Iowa, Illinois, Maryland, Ohio State, Michigan State, Purdue, Rutgers, Michigan, Penn State and Maryland (again) all in a row after this. All of those teams are in the top 35 in KenPom. So this could be a desperate situation for the Wildcats. You run into a desperate team, things can get hard. But there’s just not a lot Northwestern does that Nebraska can’t handle. If the Huskers are able to shoot well and care about this one, they should win. But watch out for the Huskers to play down to competition, which they tend to do. Nebraska 68, Northwestern 64.