With recent shooting woes, a growing list of nagging injuries and a difficult place to play on the docket, the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team’s matchup at Nebraska Thursday night will be anything but easy.
The Cornhuskers (10-13, 4-7 Big Ten) are among the worst teams, at least statistically, in the conference. They are the only squad with a negative scoring margin and rank second to last in scoring offense and defense. No. 7 Wisconsin (20-3, 9-1 Big Ten) is fifth and first in those categories, respectively. Nebraska also allows its opponents to shoot just north of 44 percent from the field, also 13th in the Big Ten.
But 11 months ago, the Huskers upset the Badgers 70-58 in the quarterfinal round of the Big Ten tournament in Indianapolis. The good news, assistant coach Joe Krabbenhoft said Tuesday, is that Nebraska is a completely different team, as it lost its top two players in Shavon Shields (graduation) and Andrew White (transfer).
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Guards Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr. have assumed the reigns for this season’s team. Webster’s 18 points per game currently ranks third in the Big Ten. The senior guard leads the Huskers in assists (4.1 per game) and minutes (35.2).
“You just look at his numbers, and it’s been a consistent trend upwards,” Krabbenhoft said. “Then from this year to last year, it’s gone through the roof. So, I think you’ve just got to give credit to the player.”
Krabbenhoft added though numbers from three aren’t great, he shoots from there with confidence, providing a tangible inside-out threat. Watson shoots from three at a 41 percent rate, leading the Huskers.
At practice Tuesday, senior forward Nigel Hayes was a limited participant but is expected to be ready to go for Thursday night. Bronson Koenig has similarly been limited, dealing with a nagging leg injury. Koenig said he’s “almost there” in regards to being 100 percent healthy.
On top of that, UW has endured a bit of a shooting slump. In UW’s last three games — against Rutgers, Illinois and Indiana — the Badgers have been shooting 37.9 percent from the field and 21.5 percent from beyond the arc. Krabbenhoft said he rarely has any mechanical advice for shooters who are slumping, other than to simply “put the ball in the hole.”
Head coach Greg Gard has repeatedly said the slump isn’t a matter of taking bad shots, just good shots not falling. His assistants and players agree with him on that point.
Senior forward Vitto Brown is one of the victims of this downward trend. He is 3-for-23 in that span, including a 1-for-15 mark from three.
One thing for Brown to look forward to is that he averaged 17 points, 6.5 rebounds and made six of his seven 3-point attempts against Nebraska last season. He also fully expects his missed layup to be featured in Gard’s film session this week.
“It’s gonna be on there,” Brown lamented. “They’re probably gonna slow-mo it, they’re probably going to put some music to it. I’m ready for that … that wasn’t me. I don’t know who that was, who shot that layup.”
Brown said for him, personally, he’s been catching the ball too straight up when he is open for a shot. By the time he lowers his body, the defenders are closing out on him. It’s important to remain positive, Brown said.
“If you’re getting down about all the shots that you’ve missed, yes, it’s going to get hard,” Brown said. “You gotta keep shooting it.”
Even with this litany of so-called problems, UW sits alone atop the Big Ten standings with a chance to increase its lead to two full games with a win against Nebraska thanks to losses by Maryland and Northwestern Tuesday.
That doesn’t mean UW should grow complacent, Koenig said.
“Once shots do start falling,” Koenig said. “I know we’ll be even better.”