Rutgers (10-3; 1-1) at Nebraska (6-7; 1-1)
How To Watch, Listen, News & Notes
Where: Pinnacle Bank Arena (15,500) in Lincoln, Nebraska
Tip-off: Friday, January 3rd at 8:00 p.m. ET
TV: BTN - Kevin Kugler and Shon Morris
Stream: Fox Sports App
KenPom Rankings: Rutgers 48th; Nebraska 136th; Rutgers has moved up 5 spots since the win over Caldwell.
Efficiency Rankings: Rutgers - Offense 103.3 (110th) Defense 89.6 (28th); Nebraska - Offense 101.3 (148th) Defense 99.1 (147th)
KenPom Prediction: Rutgers 74 Nebraska 69; Rutgers has a 68% chance to win
Vegas Line: Rutgers -6
Series History: Nebraska leads 8-4 all-time, including last season’s 68-61 come from behind victory in the first round of the Big Ten Tournament.
Nebraska - 6’6” senior Haanif Cheatham (13.1 points, 4.5 rebounds, 54.1% FG); 6’2” sophomore Cam Mack (12.8 points, 6.5 assists, 4.7 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 36.7% 3-pt FG); 6’4” junior Dachon Burke Jr. (12.7 points, 4.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals, 35.2% 3-pt FG); 6’3” junior Jervay Green (9.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists); 6’6” junior Thorir Thorbjarnarson (7.0 points, 3.4 rebounds, 45.9% 3-Pt FG); 6’8’’ freshman Kevin Cross (6.8 points, 4.3 rebounds); 6’9” freshman Yvan Quedraogo (6.2 points, 6.4 rebounds); 6’8” senior Matej Kavas (6.1 points, 1.4 rebounds)
Rutgers - 6’6” sophomore Ron Harper Jr. (11.8 points, 6.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals); 6’4” junior Geo Baker (11.4 points, 4.0 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 1.8 steals); 6’6” senior Akwasi Yeboah (9.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 45.7% 3-pt FG); 6’10” sophomore Myles Johnson (9.1 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.5 blocks, 72.2% FG); 6’2” junior Jacob Young (7.6 points, 2.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists); 6’4” sophomore Montez Mathis (7.3 points, 3.3 rebounds, 1.2 steals); 6’7” sophomore Caleb McConnell (6.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 37.5% 3-pt FG); 6’6” freshman Paul Mulcahy (4.2 points, 2.6 assists, 2.5 rebounds, 59.5% FG); 6’9” senior Shaq Carter (3.7 points, 2.5 rebounds, 57.1% FG)
Nebraska Scouting Report
Head coach Fred Hoiberg is in his first season in charge and not much was expected of this team back in the fall. It’s an entirely new roster with only on returning player in Thorir Thorbjarnarson, who averaged only 2.0 points in 12 minutes per game last season. There are many transfers contributing, so they are still learning to play together. They have struggled as expected, as they have a 6-7 record entering this matchup. They are just 1-3 against teams ranked in the KenPom Top 100 with the sole win coming in stunning fashion over KP no. 12 Purdue in the Big Ten opener. They won 70-56, as the Cornhuskers were good from three-point range at 36.7% (11-30), while the Boilermakers died by it, shooting an awful 6 of 35 for 17.1%.
Nebraska is a perimeter oriented team that plays at one of the fastest paces in the country, as its adjusted tempo of 74.4 is ranked 23rd per KenPom. Cam Mack is a transfer point guard from Stephen F. Austin who is extremely quick and makes the offense go. He plays a ton of minutes, has one of the best assist rates in the country (36.5%, 29th in DI), and can knife his way through any defense in the halfcourt with dribble penetration. Mack is getting to the free throw line at a rate of 40.6% and is steady from three-point range. Expect Montez Mathis and Jacob Young to draw the defensive assignment against him, arguably the two best defenders on the team.
The Cornhuskers are not an efficient basketball team and are shooting just 42.9% from the field, a solid 33.9% from three-point range, and a horrific 59.0% from the free throw line. They protect the basketball well, owning the 16th best turnover rate in the country at 15.9%. However, they are weak in the interior and are getting killed on the boards on a regular basis, as they have a -10.2 rebounding margin.
No significant injuries for either team.
Notes: As a team, Rutgers is shooting 47.1% from the floor, 29.5% from three-point range, and 65.0% from the free throw line......The Scarlet Knights are second in the Big Ten in steals with 7.7 and forced turnovers at 15.4 per game, third in scoring defense at 59.5 points allowed per contest, fourth in rebounding margin at +9.1, and fifth in field goal percentage defense at 37.9%, a +9.8 rebounding margin and blocks at 5.0.....Rutgers is undefeated this season at the RAC (10-0), as well as when shooting better than opponents (8-0) and limiting opponents to under 60 points per game (8-0).....The Scarlet Knights have outrebounded its opponents in every game but one this season......They are ranked 31st in the NET rankings that are used by the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee to determine the field of 68 at the end of the season.
Keys To Victory
Own the Glass
This one is simple, but Rutgers is a much better rebounding team than Nebraska and that needs to be a difference maker in this game. To win on the road in conference play a lot of things needs to go right, but imposing your will on an opponent with a clear mismatch/strength in a certain area is an absolute must. The Scarlet Knights have an offensive rebounding rate of 34.4%, which is 35th in Division I, right in line with what Nebraska is allowing opponents to do at 35.1%, which is ranked 341st nationally. Rutgers is also only allowing opponents to grab offensive rebounds at a clip of only 23.3% (24th nationally), while the Cornhuskers are just 322nd on the offensive glass (22.1%). You don’t need to be a statistician to know this is an area needs to dominate. Points in the paint and second chance points are huge for Rutgers to control the game, which will come from owning the glass.
Defense must travel
The defensive improvement that Rutgers showed in December was stunning, but it needs to continue now that Big Ten play is here in earnest. Nebraska is an opportunistic team from three and Rutgers needs to continue to close out well on the perimeter. Transition defense is crucial as well, as Nebraska, led by the speedy Mack, will look to run and catch the Scarlet Knights sleeping after missed shots on the offensive end. The Cornhuskers aren’t an efficient offensive squad and they aren’t going to become one in this game if Rutgers plays the way they are capable on the defensive end. Cutting off driving lanes and and forcing contested shots are key to putting pressure on the hosts. However, not being overzealous and getting called for silly fouls must be avoided, which leads me to my next point.
Win the Free Throw Battle
I hope you are sitting down, but Rutgers is actually the better team from the charity stripe and must take advantage of the freebies in this game. Just know not to expect RU to get many calls on the road in a Big Ten contest, in case you haven’t followed this team the past few years. They likely won’t get as many attempts as Nebraska, but they need to take advantage of every trip they make to the line in this game. Geo Baker (84.0%), Caleb McConnell (78.9%) and Akwasi Yeboah (73.5%) are clearly the best free throw shooters on the team and also have the ability to get to the rim off of dribble penetration. They need to make getting to the line a priority, and someone like Ron Harper Jr., who leads the team with 42 attempts but making just 64.3%, has to step up.
Don’t Get Sloppy with the basketball
Rutgers has struggled at times with taking care of the basketball and its turnover rate of 20.5% ranks just 236th nationally. This is a major concern in this matchup, as Nebraska plays at such a fast tempo, which could lead to Rutgers to playing out of control and result in disaster. As the calendar turns to January, this is a huge game in revealing how ready Paul Mulcahy is in being a factor in Big Ten play, He has a sterling 3.1 to 1 assist to turnover ratio and his ability to slice up zone defenses so far have been an asset. He, Geo Baker, and Jacob Young, the three primary ball handlers, need to be smart with the basketball and not let this game turn into a track meet that the hosts thrive off easy baskets off of turnovers.
Bubble Talk has become a regular part of the discussion for Rutgers over the past two weeks and for the first time since the 2006 season. At least four publications I’ve read currently project Rutgers in the NCAA Tournament as of now. It means nothing other than it’s nice to finally see perception of this program trending in the right direction on a national level. However, as Frank Sinatra sings “riding high in April, shot down in May”, you can insert December and January in regard to Rutgers basketball. Remember, this is a program that is 4-43 on the road in Big Ten play since joining the league and had just one victory ever away from the RAC before last season. The maturity of this team and their ability to handle real expectations for the first time in the Big Ten is really the key to everything in these next two plus months. The journey has officially become compelling and Rutgers will be road favorites in conference play, something that hasn’t happened much at all in the past 30 years. That doesn’t change the fact they’ve played poorly in three games away from the RAC this season, losing them all. Despite Nebraska’s struggles this season, they are still averaging a sellout in seven home games with an attendance mark of 15,583 per contest. This game is no cake walk, just ask Purdue and Rutgers has a ton to prove still. Win on Friday and things will get even more interesting and exciting in the weeks to come.
Appropriate Music Selection
For the fourteenth game of the season, I’m featuring The Dog Days Are Over by Florence + The Machine. Rutgers has been a cellar dweller for ages, earned a little respect last season, and now has a tremendous opportunity in this game to build on as promising a campaign as the program has had in a decade and a half. This is also a typical Rutgers setup before a game where hope is alive and well, only to get buried soon after with a loss they couldn’t afford or should have had. Nebraska is likely the worst team in the Big Ten this season and there isn’t a better chance to win on the road in conference play than this one. Do just that and this song title applies perfectly I hope. Also, it’s a powerful song sung by one of the top singers in music today.