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Big Ten Opening Round Preview: No. 12 Rutgers vs. No. 13 Nebraska

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Includes pregame quotes from both coaches, how to watch, stats, & keys to victory

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Rutgers Noah K. Murray-USA TODAY Sports

Big Ten Tournament Opening Round

No. 12 Rutgers (14-16; 7-13) vs. No. 13 Nebraska (16-15; 6-14)

How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes

Where: The United Center in Chicago, Illinois

Tip-off: Wednesday, March 13th at 6:30 p.m. ET

TV: BTN - Brandon Gaudin & Shon Morris

Stream: BTN2GO

Radio: Live Listen - WCTC 1450 AM/WOR 710 AM - Jerry Recco & Joe Boylan; WRSU 88.7 FM - Jake Ostrove & Justin Sontupe

KenPom Rankings: Rutgers #77; Nebraska #45

(Rutgers moved back 6 spots after the loss to Indiana)

KenPom Prediction: Nebraska 70 Rutgers 66; Rutgers has a 38% chance to win.

Vegas Line: Nebraska -1.5

Series History: Nebraska leads 7-4 all-time, but Rutgers won on January 21st this season by the score of 76-69.

Big Ten Tournament History: Rutgers is 3-4 all-time, including it’s first ever Quarterfinals appearance last season as the 14 seed, defeating 11 seeded Minnesota and 6 seeded Indiana.

SB Nation Nebraska site: Corn Nation

Game 30 recap & four thoughts

About Nebraska

Head coach Tim Miles is in his seventh year at Nebraska and there has been speculation that this could be his last. Nebraska entered this season with legitimate NCAA aspirations and instead the Huskers finished in 13th place in the Big Ten, although still considered on the NCAA bubble. Since Rutgers beat them in mid-January, a key player in Isaac Copeland was lost for the season due to injury. Nebraska enters Wednesday’s game with the potential of missing four players total due to injuries and suspensions.

Nebraska had lost four straight games before defeating Iowa in overtime on Sunday. They are averaging 72.1 points per game while shooting 43.0% from the field, 34.3% from three-point range, and 69.4% from the foul line.

Advanced stats make Nebraska the favorite against Rutgers on Wednesday. The Huskers finished the regular season 7th in Big Ten play in offensive efficiency at 100.8, while finishing last in defensive efficiency at 109.5. Offensively, they were second in the league in turnover rate at just 14.3%, but shot just 45.0% for second to worst. Defensively, they forced opponents into 17.2% turnover rate, which was fifth best in the Big Ten, but allowed a league worst 37.3% from three-point range.

Notable Contributors

Backcourt

6’6” senior James Palmer Jr. - 19.1 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals

6’0” senior Glynn Watson Jr. - 13.0 points, 4.0 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.1 steals

6’1” sophomore Thomas Allen - 8.7 points, 2.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.3 steals (injured)

6’6” sophomore Nana Akentan - 4.3 points, 2.5 rebounds (suspended)

6’6” sophomore Amir Harris - 2.2 points, 2.5 rebounds (injured)

6’3” junior Johnny Trueblood - 0.9 points, 1.5 rebounds, 0.8 assists

6’6” sophomore Thorir Thorbjarsarson - 1.5 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists

Frontcourt

6’9” senior forward Isaac Copeland - 14.0 points, 5.3 rebounds, 1.1 assists, 1.0 steal (injured)

6’8” junior Isaiah Roby - 11.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.8 blocks, 1.3 steals

6’8” senior Tanner Borchardt - 2.9 points, 4.2 rebounds

6’11” freshman Brady Heiman - 1.9 points, 1.9 rebounds

Note: Nebraska will have just six scholarship players and two walk-on’s available tonight.

Rutgers Notes: The Scarlet Knights are averaging 68.1 points per game this season and are shooting 41.7% from the floor, 31.4% from three-point range, and 63.4% from the free throw line......They own 8 quadrant 1 & 2 wins this season......KenPom has RU as the most improved high major program, based on moving up 72 spots in those efficiency rankings since the beginning of this season......In Big Ten play, Rutgers is ranked 12th in both offensive (98.7) and defensive efficiency (106.7).....Rutgers finished in a three-way tie for 10th place in the Big Ten, after finishing in last place the previous four seasons....Steve Pikiell hasn’t lost an opening round conference tournament game in 10 years.

Coach Pikiell Pregame Thoughts

On The Big Ten Tournament

“Our new season begins with Nebraska. I liked our (regular) season this year. We made some strides but we have a long way to go. I’m excited for the tournament. We have to do it again. The tournament is so different. You can learn from mistakes during the year and you can get your guys to bounce back from things. But this is 40 minutes or your uniforms are being handed in. So it’s a whole different perspective you have to take in this tournament. We’ve shown signs of being real good and we’ve shown other signs that we have a long ways to go. But this is now the time where you better put it together and you better stay out of foul trouble and you better be well prepared. We intend to be that, and again, there are many challenges when you’re playing in a league like this no matter who you play. We have to get a young group to be ready to play at a high level for 40 minutes and we plan on doing that.’’

Difference In Nebraska Without Isaac Copeland

“He was a hurt a long time ago so I think they’ve gotten through that adjustment. They have really good players. (James) Palmer Jr. is an all-league player. (Glynn) Watson. (Isaiah) Roby is one of the most talented guys in the conference. Watching their game the other day against Iowa, I saw the confidence in the way they play. They made three’s, they’re getting good minutes out of their bench guys. Even in the games they lost down the stretch, they played well. They’ve been in games and it’s a tough league, so to finish these things off it becomes a one or two possession game. They have good talent all across the board and they will be ready. We have to be ready to play good basketball.”

On Geo Baker’s Recent Struggles

“Geo’s really good. He played really well in the tournament last year. He’s an important player for us. He’s still young too as a sophomore. Teams certainly key in on him. I expect him to play great, he did last year. We have to get him back on the right track and we will. He’s coachable, works hard and he’s been terrific.”

On Caleb McConnell’s Improvement

“Caleb has progressed as much as any player I’ve been around in a year, from the beginning of practice to now. He does a little bit of everything. He has terrific swagger and is playing with really good confidence. His practices are consistent and his games are getting more and more consistent.”

On Dealing With Issa Thiam’s Dismissal (story here)

“We’ve had many obstacles this year and it’s just another one we have to fight through.”

On The Importance of Veteran Leadership

“You always lean on your veterans. They’re the ones who always understand the urgency of the situation. You depend on those guys and we have to continue to educate our young guys how important this is. It’s a whole new season and this is why I love a league like this. This is our last way to keep the season going.”

For a full audio of all the Big Ten coaches speaking on Monday ahead of the Big Ten Tournament, click here.

Keys To Victory

Offensive Rebounding

Nebraska is last in Big Ten play with opponents grabbing offensive rebounds at a rate of 34.2%. This is a major advantage for Rutgers, who lead the Big Ten in offensive rebounds per game and grab them at a rate of 30.7%, fifth best in league play. In the first meeting, the Scarlet Knights were +10 on the glass and +5 on the offensive end. It led to a 17-7 advantage on second chance points. They’ll need similar production in the second meeting against Nebraska, who are missing Isaac Copeland, who tied for a team high 8 rebounds back in the January meeting. Rutgers needs to attack the glass, be relentless the entire game and finish near the rim off of offensive boards. And if not, draw fouls, wear down Nebraska’s depth and convert from the line. When they do these things offensively, they are at their best.

Interior Defense

Rutgers has the matchup edge inside, but Isaiah Roby is playing well and James Palmer Jr. is very good at getting to the rim. In the first meeting, Rutgers dominated inside, holding a 42-24 advantage with points in the paint. Doorson and Omoruyi, along with Myles Johnson and Shaq Carter, need to ensure Nebraska don’t get any clean looks at the basket from close range. Nebraska was just 41.2% from two-point range in the first meeting and were only 13th overall in Big Ten play this season. Make them work for every bucket and contest every shot.

Timely Three’s

Neither team has shot particularly well or defended well either from three-point range in Big Ten play. For Rutgers, they need to take shots within its offense and find open looks along the perimeter off of good ball movement. They’ve done a better job of this of late but need to be more consistent. There is zero reason to force three’s in this matchup and Rutgers needs to implore an attacking mindset. Montez Mathis punished Nebraska for 20 points in the first game and they had trouble containing his athleticism. Now with Ron Harper Jr on a roll, Nebraska will need to contend with them both. For Rutgers to really click offensively, they need to establish themselves in the paint and look to find open shooters as the game progresses. Even if Rutgers shoots around its average of 31.2%, as long as they can make a few in key stretches to extend runs, it will go a long way towards winning the game.

Bench Production

When Rutgers is most dangerous, it’s getting contributions from multiple players, including its bench. In seven Big Ten wins, the Rutgers reserves are outscoring opponents by an average of 10.5 points per game. In the first meeting, Rutgers had 31-6 advantage in bench points. Myles Johnson tied his career high in Big Ten play with 13 points on 6 of 8 shooting, along with 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks. He has an opportunity to feast once again in this matchup. Caleb McConnell was a non-factor in the first meeting, scoring just 2 points in 9 minutes. However, he has improved by leaps and bounds since then and his length should give Nebraska trouble on both ends of the floor. Peter Kiss scores 8 points the first time around and will get more minutes with Issa Thiam gone. With a thin Nebraska rotation and utilizing a few players with little experience due to depth issues, Rutgers needs a good game from its bench to overwhelm the Huskers.

Leadership

The human element is often overlooked but there is no denying the suspension of Issa Thiam affected this team in some way at Indiana. They didn’t look right and played one of its worst defensive games of the season. With news that Issa has now been dismissed, the players need to regroup mentally ahead of this game. The leadership of Shaq Doorson, Eugene Omoruyi and Geo Baker is huge in this game, not only in pushing the team forward, but helping the freshmen four through its first postseason experience.

There are likely not going to be a lot of fans in the arena at the start of the game, as it’s a 5:30 local tip and Northwestern-Illinois is the true draw in Chicago following the first game. In addition, Nebraska fans will easily outnumber Rutgers fans, based on location. The team needs to come out and create its own energy and play sharp from the opening tip. Nebraska is wounded, despite coming off a win, and Rutgers needs to establish control right from the start. Baker and Omoruyi in particular need to play smart and with purpose from the beginning to get this team off on the right foot. I think Nebraska will be in trouble if they fall behind early. Rutgers needs to come out swinging and be the hungrier team.

Appropriate Music Selection

For this game, I chose Alive by Pearl Jam. It’s appropriate I go back to the original band that inspired me to add music in each preview and with the perfect song for this week. This is it. Win or the season is over. It’s been a roller coaster ride of a season with plenty of highs and lows and we don’t want it to end. Hopefully this team feels the same way and plays like it. Survive and advance. Just stay alive!

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