Eat your heart out, Chicago State.
While, as a whole, the Nebraska men’s basketball team is lightyears removed from a miserable Chicago State program, Sunday’s 62-61 victory over Penn State will officially keep the Huskers and Cougars out of the same sentence when it comes to in-conference futility.
Prior to Sunday’s triumph, Nebraska had dropped 26 Big Ten games in a row. The only active losing streak longer than the Huskers’ belonged to Chicago State, which boasts a 32-game conference losing skid.
Nebraska’s victory over Penn State didn’t come easily, but it was a victory nonetheless. And, much like head coach Fred Hoiberg referenced following last Friday’s loss to Illinois, the hardest things to move on from are emotional losses and emotional wins.
Thanks to the nature of Nebraska’s schedule, Hoiberg’s squad will have the opportunity to see how they respond to the latter with a two-game series at Maryland on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The Huskers have been playing competitive basketball since returning from their three-week pause due to COVID-19. While Hoiberg’s squad is still looking to put together a complete offensive performance, Nebraska has excelled on the defensive side of the ball.
Nebraska currently sits as the No. 52 team in the country in defensive efficiency, according to Kenpom. This is a monumental step up from last year’s squad, which finished the season No. 152 in the same metric.
Nebraska’s defensive performance since returning from the break is in stark contrast to how it fared before the pause. In the four games before the team suspended all activities, the Huskers conceded an average of 84.5 points per game and 1.17 points per possession. Nebraska’s opponents shot an average of 61% from inside the arc and 34.8% from 3-point range.
In their last five games, the Huskers are giving up an average of just 69 points per game and 0.95 points per possession. From the floor, they’re limiting opponents to an average of 46% shooting from 2-point range and 28% from long range.
Enter Maryland, the No. 35 team in the country, according to Kenpom and a widely-projected NCAA Tournament bubble team. The Terrapins can ill-afford a slip-up against Nebraska, but, much like Penn State, the Huskers can take advantage of Maryland and perhaps find success on Tuesday and Wednesday.
For starters, Maryland is an undersized team. The Terrapins do have 7-foot-2 sophomore center Chol Marial, but he’s started just one game this season and hasn’t played in Maryland’s last three games. Nebraska found success on Sunday against a similarly undersized Nittany Lion squad, with 34 of its 62 points coming in the paint. The Huskers could have the upper hand inside against a Maryland team which, besides Marial, doesn’t have a rotational piece above 6-foot-9.
What the Terrapins lack in size they make up for in experience. Senior guard Darryl Morsell and junior guards Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala are Big Ten veterans. On Sunday night against Minnesota, the trio combined for 42 of Maryland’s 72 points in a 72-59 triumph. Wiggins led the way with 17 points, followed by 13 from Morsell and 12 from Ayala.
When Maryland’s guard trio isn’t clicking, like in the Terrapins’ 55-50 loss to Penn State on Feb. 5, head coach Mark Turgeon’s squad has struggled to get in rhythm offensively. Ayala had 23 of Maryland’s 50 points, but Wiggins and Morsell combined for just eight on 4-of-12 shooting. Sophomore forward Donta Scott boosts Maryland’s offense with 12.2 points per game, but the production of Maryland’s three top guards may be crucial against Nebraska.
Kenpom rates Maryland as a very efficient side on the offensive and defensive end. The site ranks the Terrapins as the No. 52 offense and No. 34 defense in the nation adjusted. This means that Maryland can match up with Nebraska defensively and has the offensive firepower to take advantage of one of the Huskers’ patented scoring droughts.
Nebraska overcame an over eight-minute scoring drought to hold on against the Nittany Lions on Sunday, but it may not be so fortunate if such a drought occurs against Maryland. Additionally, one has to wonder about the fatigue factor impacting the Huskers.
When the series is completed on Wednesday, the Huskers will have played seven games in 12 days, also playing in five different states over that stretch. Nebraska is coming off of two grueling games against Illinois and Penn State, and two quality performances against Maryland might be a tough task.
If Nebraska junior forward Lat Mayen, who has averaged 11.4 points per game since the return from the pause, can continue to score in double digits along with junior guards Teddy Allen and Trey McGowens, the Huskers may be able to compete with Maryland in both games.
There’s a good chance that both games resemble a bit of a rock fight, with both Maryland and Nebraska struggling to eclipse 70 points recently. If that is the case, unlike in years past, the Huskers may have the defensive acumen to keep up with whatever Maryland throws at them.