Saturday afternoon the Nebraska Cornhuskers came into Crisler Center sitting atop the Big Ten. Their opponent, the University of Michigan Wolverines, were looking to pick themselves up following back to back losses to Maryland and at Illinois.
In past seasons, the Cornhuskers would have had nothing to lose and everything to gain in a road game like this. Now looking like world beaters and receiving outstanding guard play the Cornhuskers needed a win to show they were not a cellar dweller, but instead one of the many middle of the pack teams the conference has to offer.
Michigan's guards were in foul trouble early in the first half causing Michigan to rely on a very short bench to give them minutes. Despite shooting over 60 percent in the first half the Cornhuskers trailed for almost the entire quarter.
Here is what we learned.
1. If defense isn't the problem, rebounding is.
If it's not one thing it's another for the Wolverines. Their lack of effort on defense came into question this week after looking sharp early in the season. This is not the same defensive team fans saw in New York earlier this year. They do not switch, they do not contest enough threes and they are soft in the middle.
Nothing was different in that respect. Nebraska shot 62 percent in the first half but trailed largely in part to their lack of three point production. So if the Wolverines did so well defending the three ball early they should have continued in the second half, right? Wrong.
The Huskers hit five of their first ten three pointers in the second half, on route to an even 50 percent shooting day from beyond the arch. Though they were able to get stops early, it was apparently the only way Michigan could get a stop was off a Nebraska turnover.
The Wolverines tried just about anything to get a stop. There was even a stretch where they switched from a 2-3 zone to a 1-3-1 on back-to-back possessions by the Cornhuskers. Nebraska came up with five points on those particular sets.
Even after a slightly improved defensive performance from the Wolverines their rebounding took a huge step back. Nebraska out rebounded Michigan 29-23 and dominated the offensive glass. The amount of second chance points Nebraska was able to capitalize on in the second half really was what kept them in the game.
2. Moe Wagner and DJ Wilson are really good
Ok so maybe we did not learn this specifically this game but their performances definitely dictated some recognition. Wagner was feeling it offensively, setting career bests in points (23) and three pointers made (4). Working outside of his comfort zone, Wagner even demonstrated some savvy post moves, something we have not seen much of this season.
The other stretch forward carrying this offense, DJ Wilson, added a modest 11 points but also went 3-for-4 from beyond the arch. His shot looked improved and had less of a line drive stroke. He hovered around the perimeter for much of the game, causing his rebounding totals to be lower than usual.
The Wolverines also had improved offensive outputs from Derrick Walton Jr and Zak Irvin. These two seniors have disappointed for much of the year but their efficiency cannot be ignored. Walton was especially important down the stretch.
3. Nebraska isn't over the hump yet
After an impressive start to Big Ten play, the Cornhuskers have now suffered back-to-back losses in the conference. A win on the road in Ann Arbor may have put them up there with Minnesota as one of the Big Ten teams looking to make some noise this season. It does not look like they are out of that bottom 3-4 teams in the conference conversation just yet.
Nebraska had all five starers play over 28 minutes, including 36 minute performances from Evan Taylor and Tai Webster and a 38 minute output by Glynn Watson Jr. Their lack of bench production proved to hurt them late.
What they do have is a very talented starting back court. Waston Jr was a miss match problem all game and was able to heat up in the second half, going 4-for-7 from deep. Webster, who had trouble holding on to the ball all game, was a menace inside. Those three players alone will not be able to carry the Cornhuskers all season, but that won't stop them from trying.
Nebraska played the Wolverines tough and fell just short in a competitive shootout by both teams. The Cornhuskers showed they can compete with the middle of the pack Big Ten teams but their short bench may be their biggest fault.
The Wolverines did what they needed to do to get the win. Abdur-Rahkman attacked the rim, the team fed their forwards. They generated enough turnovers to get by even though the still have a lot of work to do defensively. They have a lot of work to do but Michigan basketball stays relevant for another day with this win. It appears to be survive and advance at this point for the under achieving Wolverines.