If there was ever a great opportunity for Nebraska to knock off a top Big Ten team this year, Saturday night’s showdown with Michigan State would have been just the chance the Huskers needed. However, they squandered their first real opportunity.
No. 17 Michigan State is a team still searching for its identity after losing its long-time leaders in guard Cassius Winston and forward Xavier Tillman to the NBA Draft. The Spartans’ 6-0 start, which included a win over then-No. 6 Duke, catapulted them to a No. 4 ranking, but they had since crashed to earth with three straight conference losses entering this game. Nebraska’s last lead came with seven minutes remaining in the first half, but the Huskers made the matchup competitive and gave the Spartans a scare.
Here are five takeaways from the loss:
Nebraska showed the resilience it lacked in previous games
Nebraska had a chance to capitalize on a reeling team still figuring itself out, but was largely felled by turnovers. The Spartans played well and it was not as if they gave the Huskers ample opportunities to beat them, but that shouldn’t be expected against top teams. The Huskers largely traded blows with their opponent in the first half despite committing eleven turnovers, yet trailed by seven points by halftime.
Early in the second half, it looked as if the Nebraska team that got routed by Creighton and Wisconsin after playing competitive first halves could make another appearance. Instead, the Huskers rallied to make the second half a net even. The Spartans sprinted out to a 17-point lead within three minutes of the second half, and it looked like the game would turn out like Wednesday’s 36-point loss at No. 25 Ohio State.
Instead, Nebraska slowly chipped away, cutting the deficit back to single digits where it hovered for a while. The Huskers cut Michigan State’s advantage to two possessions multiple times in the final 10 minutes, but were unable to get any closer.
Trey McGowens put forth a great Teddy Allen impersonation in the first half, but Allen showed there is no replacement for the real thing
Junior guard Trey McGowens was the force that kept the Huskers in the game for much of the first half. He tallied 15 points by halftime on 4-of-5 shooting. McGowens made several key defensive plays and forced his way to the rim, shooting 5-of-6 from the free throw line. The guard was the Huskers’ offensive hub with junior guard Teddy Allen sitting most of the half with two early fouls. For long periods in the game, he took over Allen’s role as go-to scorer and did it far more efficiently. McGowens’ first half performance called into question the status of Allen, a self-appointed offensive fulcrum with a 0.59 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Allen’s second half performance changed that. He scored 19 points in the second frame, keeping the Huskers competitive before they began clawing their way back. He shot an impressive 10-of-18 from the field, his best conversion rate since the season opener against McNeese State. Allen did start the second half with two missed shots and did hoist some ill-advised shots at the rim, but all things considered it was probably his best half as a Husker.
McGowens’ impressive first half should not be dismissed as a hot streak by one of the team’s better players. McGowens, a transfer, was always one of the top options on an offensively balanced Pittsburgh team in both seasons with the Panthers. He was the Panthers’ leading scorer 18 times in 66 games, something he has yet to do as a Husker.
Too often, he has taken on a tertiary role behind Allen and sophomore guard Dalano Banton. McGowens is averaging a career low 1.3 assists per game after averaging 3.6 during his last year at Pittsburgh, and a decent amount of his 10.6 points per game came from fast breaks.
McGowens is one of the Huskers’ most experienced players, and if tonight’s game was any indication of how the Huskers play when he’s scoring, he should be more aggressive offensively.
The Huskers may be better suited with more of a scorer-by-committee approach
Along with making McGowens more of an offensive priority, it would behoove Nebraska to get more players involved offensively. Banton, the Huskers’ second leading scorer, finished with just seven points, five of which came in the last three minutes as Nebraska tried to claw its way back.
Banton, who also finished with seven assists, is not a primary scorer nor a great shooter and is probably best served as a pure playmaker, he is second on the team after Allen in usage rate at 23.1%. Nonetheless, the player with the highest offensive rating on the team per Kenpom.com and Nebraska’s only potential NBA prospect should probably play a more significant role through 37 minutes just as McGowens should have in past games.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg has made several comments about wanting to get junior forward Lat Mayen more involved in the offense, and the Huskers did better at that today. The 6-foot-9 forward finished with eight points on 3-of-5 shooting, including 2-of-3 from beyond the arc, but played just 15 minutes as he fouled out.
It may also be nice to see junior guard Shamiel Stevenson, who averaged 8.5 points per game as a freshman for Pittsburgh, used as more of an offensive energizer off the bench. Stevenson went scoreless in five minutes of action tonight and is averaging just 2.4 points per game in the last seven games. He averaged 9.3 points per game through the Huskers’ first four games.
The Huskers were pretty efficient offensively today, but still have work to do in sorting out the offensive hierarchy. Nebraska ranks last in the Big Ten in both assist-turnover ratio and assists per game, and not so surprisingly, it is also last in the win column.
Aaron Henry began his first-team all Big Ten campaign against Nebraska
Both the aforementioned Winston and Tillman were in-state, four-star recruits who developed first into role players then stars for Michigan State under head coach Tom Izzo’s tutelage. The Spartans’ roster is littered with four stars who have yet to step up this season.
Ironically, the Spartans’ best player this season has most often been a three-star recruit, junior forward Aaron Henry. Tonight, he left no doubt who Michigan State’s best player and offensive focus should be going forth.
Henry totaled a career-high 27 points on 10-of-16 shooting. The do-it-all wing leads the Spartans in points and assists per game following Saturday night’s game, along with ranking second on the team in rebounding. He has struggled a bit in finding consistency with his shot, at 39% from the field entering the game, but it shows that the Spartans are at their best when Henry is making shots. In the Spartans’ victory over Duke, Henry led the team in scoring.
The beauty of Henry’s game is that he can have a profound impact on a matchup even when he’s not scoring. Henry is averaging 13.4 points, 5.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. What Nebraska saw tonight was the best version of Henry, a player who can serve as an offensive focal point, score efficiently and defend at a high level. He’s a player capable of being first team All-Big Ten and a Big Ten all-defensive team honoree.
Henry will not always lead the Spartans in scoring or shoot as efficiently from the field as he did Saturday night, but with more games like this and a top-five conference finish for Michigan State, he could find himself being voted as one of the top five players in the Big Ten.
The Huskers actually shot well
Nebraska’s problems, in many ways, come down to shooting. In losses to Michigan, Wisconsin, Georgia Tech and Nevada the Huskers shot below 40%. Even in these games, the result wasn’t a sure thing for the opponent. Nebraska also only shot 28% from the field in its drubbing at Ohio State.
The Huskers shot their highest percentage in Big Ten play by far at 49%, and 47% on 3-pointers on 19 attempts, their highest 3-point percentage of the season. Additionally, Nebraska shot 74% on 19 free throw attempts, another season-best percentage for the second-worst free throw shooting team in the Big Ten.
Also of note, the Huskers outrebounded the Spartans 31-29. Nebraska has outrebounded its opponent in seven of 11 games this season.
If Nebraska has this kind of shooting performance on a night it does not turn the ball over 18 times, an upset could be probable. If nothing else, this kind of shooting night should give the Huskers confidence that they could win against fellow Big Ten bottom dwellers. The likes of Penn State and Maryland, two teams which have fallen mightily from last year, are scheduled twice each for the Huskers. On a good night, like against Michigan State, one could easily see Nebraska grabbing the win.