1) Fresh face: Freshman guard Joe McCray made an immediate impact for the Cornhuskers (8-6, 2-2 Big 12) when he came off the bench to score 23 points in Nebraska's season opener against Arkansas-Pine Bluff. After a 24-point effort against UAB two games later, McCray found himself in the starting lineup, and he has not relinquished that role.
Slowing McCray, twice named the Big 12's Rookie of the Week, will be Missouri's focus defensively. He leads the team at 15.4 points per game and chips in a solid 5.6 rebounds as well. He has scored in double figures in 12 of Nebraska's 14 contests, showing unusual consistency for a newcomer. His 19 points at No. 2 Kansas on Wednesday gave the Cornhuskers the halftime edge and almost allowed them to steal a win away from the Jayhawks.
Limiting McCray's impact from the perimeter will be vital. He leads the Big 12 with 44 3-pointers, although he is shooting a pedestrian 39 percent from beyond the arc. McCray will get his shots -- he has taken seven or more 3-pointers in each of the past eight games -- but Missouri needs to make sure they are contested looks. If the Tigers can keep him under wraps, they should win this game.
2) Interior decorating: After boasting post players that were just as comfortable inside as they were knocking down 3-pointers the past few seasons, Nebraska is less multiple this year. Andrew Drevo and Brian Conklin, who combined to go 6-of-7 from 3 and posted 24 points in Nebraska's 78-62 home win against Missouri last February, have graduated, leaving the interior responsibilities to other players.
Forward John Turek, a four-year starter, has emerged as the top interior presence. He has started Nebraska's past seven games and reached double figures in three of those games, including a season-high 17 in a double-overtime win against Kansas State. Turek is not a perimeter threat but possesses the athleticism that could frustrate Missouri's less experienced interior players.
After breaking a bone in his left foot on the first day of practice, junior forward Wes Wilkinson has come on strong of late. He poured in a career-high 22 points against Kansas State and scored 16 against the Jayhawks on Wednesday. Wilkinson is the one big capable of stepping out and hitting perimeter shots. He has made 11-of-30 3-point attempts, a 37 percent mark.
Freshman Aleks Maric boasts more experience than his class standing would lead you to believe. An Australia native, Maric helped lead his homeland to the gold medal in the 2003 Under-18 World Championships. His offensive game is still developing, but the 6-11 Maric has become a rebounding force, pulling down 7.5 per game despite averaging just 20.6 minutes. He is the main reason why Nebraska holds a 7.6 rebounding margin on its opponents and will be a tough matchup for the relatively undersized Tigers.
3) Matters of momentum: Losing games in the nature Missouri has recently can serve to fire up an underperforming squad, but that has yet to happen. Conversely, Nebraska should be feeling very good about itself after hanging with two Top 10 teams in the past week.
The Cornhuskers fought back and forth with Texas at home last Saturday, eventually stumbling late in a 63-53 loss. Their surge continued on Wednesday, when they visited Allen Fieldhouse and gave the Jayhawks all they wanted in a 59-57 loss. Senior guard and St. Louis native Corey Simms had a chance to give the Cornhuskers the win, but his wide-open 3-point attempt on the final possession clanked off the right side of the rim.
Still, to know that you can hang with one of the few remaining undefeated teams can only provide positive momentum. After fighting through the Phog, Nebraska should have no problems in the comfortable surroundings of Mizzou Arena.
4) Attack, attack, attack: In my preview to the Texas Tech game, I mentioned that the Tigers need to attack the glass more often. In the early moments of the second half, the Tigers, most notably sophomore guard Thomas Gardner, began to do just that. The result: Gardner went to the line six times and finished with a respectable 11 points despite going 0-of-3 from beyond the arc.
This needs to continue against the Huskers. Missouri's opponent has topped the Tigers at the free-throw line in each of the past three games, converting 58-of-75 compared to Missouri's 29-of-53. That their opponent has converted more free throws than the Tigers have attempted in that stretch is a woeful fact. Nebraska does not have much interior depth and could get into trouble if Missouri drives to the hoop instead of forcing perimeter looks.
5) Projected headline: Tigers right ship, topple Huskers
I can easily see the Tigers losing this game. They were booed continually on their home floor Wednesday night and, if you believe in booing student-athletes, they deserved it. Conversely, Nebraska comes in riding a wave of good feelings after close calls against the Longhorns and Jayhawks. Further, Nebraska holds the edge in most statistical categories and boasts much more experience than Missouri does.
But this is a game Missouri simply cannot afford to lose. With two games against Kansas and matchups against Texas and Oklahoma still on the docket, the Tigers would be looking at nothing better than an 8-8 conference mark if they lose to the Cornhuskers. With all of that in mind, I'll take the Tigers, although I'm less confident in this prediction than I have been in any I've made all season.
Final score: Tigers 67, Cornhuskers 64