Thad Matta’s basketball team has lost its last two games – road contests against Michigan State and Michigan – and three of their last five. The Buckeyes played particularly poorly in the first half against the Wolverines, falling behind by 20 before a second-half comeback came up short.
Ohio State (19-8, 8-6) will have a chance to get back in the win column at home tonight against Nebraska (13-14, 5-10) and Matta said that the team responded well in Tuesday’s practice.
“(Practice) was pretty good just in terms of trying to take a look at Sunday’s game and just what the heck are we doing here? We’ve got to get those things corrected so it was kind of a briefing for us,” the coach said Tuesday. “But, Nebraska poses some serious problems in terms of when they’re on in their ability to score and that sort of thing.”
While the Buckeyes have struggled recently, the Cornhuskers have had their share of difficulties all season. Despite returning the bulk of a roster that qualified for the NCAA Tournament last year, Nebraska is below .500 overall and has won just a third of their conference games. The Cornhuskers are coming off a 74-46 home loss to Iowa that prompted Coach Tim Miles to lock the team out of their own locker room.
That loss was the fifth straight for Nebraska and seventh in their last eight games.
“We know that they’re going to come in and play hard, I guess their locker room is on the line now, but that comes as no surprises to us,” senior Sam Thompson said. “We knew that they were going to come in and give us their best shot. We knew that we were going to have to play. Our mindset doesn’t really change. We want to be at our best tomorrow to play our best basketball.”
The Cornhuskers are led by Terran Petteway and his 18.2 points per game, good for second-best in the Big Ten. Shavon Shields adds 15.3 points per game, but no other Nebraska player averages more than 10 points per game. Those two players are also the top two Cornhuskers in rebounds and assists.
With just Shields and Petteway as serious contributors, Nebraska averages just 61.7 points per game, second-to-last in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers struggle to stretch the floor, hitting just 28.7 percent of their shots from behind the arc.
Still, Nebraska has shown flashes of the team that went to the tournament last year. Two games ago they pushed Maryland, the second-best team in the league, in College Park, eventually falling by four to the Terrapins.
“I saw them play two games ago against Maryland and you’re watching them play and saying, ‘These guys are probably first or second in the Big Ten.’ They looked unbelievable,” Matta said. “All the guys are back and you can see where guys have gotten better, the percentages are a little bit higher so they’re a rough, tough, physical team that’s smash-mouth on defense so we’ve got to execute our offense, move them.”
Matta said that he may go with a small lineup at times against the Cornhuskers, a set he has used periodically this season, including for stretches against Michigan. That lineup features two or three 6-7 players (Thompson, Keita Bates-Diop and Marc Loving) in place of any traditional big man. The Buckeyes can likely get away with that look against Nebraska because the Cornhuskers starting big man, Walter Pitchford, is a perimeter-oriented player.
“There’s been talk of ‘Hey, we might have to go small,’” Matta said. “They’ve mixed up their starting lineups some and I think — I don’t care so much about the risk if we’re getting what we need out of that lineup. You can sacrifice some things from rim protectors or whatever it could be for the betterment of more offensive energy, more movement and those types of things.”
After two straight losses the Buckeyes will need something to get them reenergized tonight against the Cornhuskers.