It’s desperation time.
A day after the Nebraska women’s basketball team pulled off a top-10 upset at home over No. 8 Michigan, the Husker men’s basketball team fell just short at No. 10 Michigan State. The 79-67 road defeat dropped Nebraska to 6-9 and, more importantly, 0-4 in Big Ten play.
The effort was undoubtedly better than the 30-point losses earlier this season to Michigan and No. 9 Auburn, but the failing grade is the same.
The outing was not all-around bad. Four Huskers scored double digits, including two off the bench in senior guard Kobe Webster with 13 and freshman guard CJ Wilcher with 10. Nebraska forced the Spartans into 19 turnovers and turned those into 20 points.
Yet, teams have had an uncanny tendency to shoot the lights out against the Husker defense this season, and Michigan State was no exception. The Spartans shot 47% from the 3-point range and 52% from the floor. Michigan State freshman guard Max Christie burned the Huskers from deep, shooting 3-of-4 from the 3-point range and 7-of-9 overall for a 21 point display.
The road trip continues for Nebraska on Saturday with a continued eastward swing to Piscataway, New Jersey. There, the Rutgers Scarlet Knights await the Huskers and their 0-3 road record.
It may seem premature to declare desperation this early in the season, but it’s true. Following Rutgers, the combined record of the Husker’s next five opponents is 52-12. Of those five teams, all are projected tournament teams by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, and No. 13 Ohio State, No. 23 Wisconsin and No. 3 Purdue are all ranked in the AP Top 25.
Tuesday’s win over Michigan may be the most complete performance this year for Rutgers. The Scarlet Knights tallied 20 or more assists for the fourth time this year and for the first time against a Power Six opponent. That mark was the second highest ever for Rutgers in a Big Ten game, and it also tied a record for made 3-pointers in a Big Ten contest with 11.
More importantly for the Scarlet Knights, it was the first win over Michigan in school history.
“This was our third game in seven days after having 13 days off,” Rutgers head coach Steve Pikiell said postgame. “This was a good veteran win, and we have another one coming up, so we're in the gauntlet."
Senior guard Geo Baker will be a key cog for Rutgers on Saturday. Baker turned in his highest scoring output of the season on Tuesday with 27 points, and with that showing, he became the 16th Scarlet Knight to make 500 career baskets. Alongside Baker is senior forward Ron Harper Jr., who leads the team in scoring with 15.3 points per game and added 20 to Baker’s 27 on Tuesday.
Harper also made the game-winning shot versus then-undefeated and No. 1 Purdue.
Nebraska defeated Rutgers in the only meeting of the season 72-51 in March 2021. That victory was the seventh and final win of the season for the Huskers and pushed Nebraska to 9-6 all-time against the Scarlet Knights. The Huskers controlled it from the opening tip, shooting 55% in the first half.
Leading the way for Nebraska was now-junior forward Lat Mayen, who sank five 3-pointers and posted a career-high 25 points, 20 of which came in the first half. Nebraska’s 21-point margin of victory is the largest against a Big Ten opponent since it defeated Rutgers by 24 points in 2016.
Two other Huskers reached double figures, including now-junior forward Derrick Walker with 14 points and now-junior guard Trey McGowens with 12. McGowens, who hasn’t played since injuring his foot against Creighton on Nov. 16, is nearing a return to play. It did not come against the Spartans, and it may not come Saturday in New Jersey either, but when McGowens retakes the floor, it will provide a major boost for Nebraska.
Nebraska held Baker to four points on 2-of-10 shooting and Harper to 10 points. The only other Scarlet Knight to enter double digits was senior guard Jacob Young with 12 points. Young transferred to Oregon, where he now averages 10.1 points per game. As a team, Rutgers shot 39% from the field, 13% from the 3-point range and was outrebounded 38-28.
For Nebraska, Walker has been the bright spot as of late. In his last two games, the Husker interior presence has been felt in large part due to Walker with 15 and 16 point performances. More importantly, he has held his own going toe to toe with some of the best bigs in the Big Ten with 11 rebounds in the last two games and one monster rejection.
Walker will need to continue to be a major piece for Nebraska to find victory on Saturday. That combined with a bolstered defensive effort behind the line are musts for the Huskers. As a team, the Scarlet Knights have shot 32% from the 3-point range this year and 43% from the floor. Nebraska has allowed a 3-point percentage of 47% in the last two games and in four of the last six games that number has eclipsed 45%.
The Huskers have been close. Now it’s time to deliver.