Michigan is likely to be favored in any game it plays against the bottom of the conference, and against Nebraska this was proven to be the right assumption. Coming off the heels of a brutal loss to Northwestern—which felt more like a season climax than the third-to-last game of the year—Nebraska wasn’t expected to stage a large-scale resistance.
In the first game between the two, the score was relatively close up until the final 10 minutes in which the Wolverines pulled away. In the first half, Nebraska was only outscored by five and the likes of sophomore guard Cam Mack, senior guard Haanif Cheatham, and junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson all put in sterling performances to help make that game as close as possible.
The autopsy for that game was inconclusive. Michigan was slightly better than the Huskers inside, but didn’t dominate rebounds and the Huskers were slightly better from the 3-point line. One significant statistic from that game is the 24 free throws Michigan drew as opposed to Nebraska’s 12. However, from looking at the box score, some tweaks to the system may have resulted in a closer game for the Huskers.
This proved not to be the case for the rematch in Ann Arbor. One of the biggest omens came at the start of the game, where Nebraska has commonly been able to match teams’ scoring output. Instead, Nebraska started out down 2-11 before head coach Fred Hoiberg was forced to call a timeout.
Things improved for the Huskers just after this bad start, however, as the team clawed the score back to 7-11. Then, as the half ran on, Nebraska started to gain confidence. A pair of triples from Thorbjarnarson and junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. drew the game to within three points. And, then, four more points from Nebraska closed the gap to just 23-22.
Thorbjarnarson’s drives from the top of either wing to the opposite lane proved especially effective against Michigan when taking advantage of down screens set by either freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo or freshman forward Kevin Cross. Thorbjarnarson’s technique in slowing down after driving helped against the smaller guards he was matched up against.
However, Michigan came prepared, and capitalizing off of a string of Nebraska turnovers, breezed to a 29-22 lead with four minutes remaining in the first half. Nebraska pulled the game back to four points before the end of the half, but much of the game seemed decided.
While Nebraska’s first game against Michigan was hard to diagnose, the Huskers’ turnover problem against Michigan in Ann Arbor was the clear reason for their loss. Coming into this game, Nebraska averaged about 11.6 turnovers per game. This time, it gave the ball away 12 times in the first half. By the end of the game, the Huskers had 22 turnovers in all. With this, Michigan took 12 more shots than Nebraska, and in any given basketball game it’s harder to win if the opponent is doing that.
Interestingly, only 22.4 percent of Nebraska’s shots were 3-pointers against Michigan. This is way down from its average 39.9 percent 3-point frequency. The best way to make sure a team shoots poorly from the 3-point line, or not score as much from the 3-point line, is to have it take less shots. Michigan’s perimeter defense is one of the best in the nation in this regard. Against Michigan, only 28 percent of shots from the opposition are 3-pointers. This makes Michigan seventh best in the nation in limiting the 3-pointer.
With the suspension of sophomore guard Cam Mack other Huskers had to step up to fill the playmaking void. About 54.6 percent of the Huskers’ field goal makes are off of assists. Against Michigan, however, that number dropped all the way to 38 percent. This implies either that the Huskers made significant style changes against Michigan, or that in the absence of Mack, the Huskers couldn’t play the way they normally do. With 22 turnovers on the game, the answer would lean towards the latter.
Cheatham continued a strong run that started with a 20-point performance on senior night against Northwestern. He led the team in offensive rating and shot 6-8 from the free throw line. This latter stat is particularly impressive because Cheatham has struggled mightily from the free-throw line so far this season, only shooting 66.1 percent.
With only one game left in the regular season before the Big Ten Tournament, Hoiberg will hope that his team can salvage one more win out of the season before reloading and retooling.