Coming off a win over arch-rival University of Michigan Sunday, the Spartans (13-9, 5-4 Big Ten) did something against the Wolverines they hadn’t done in their previous three games — focused.
For whatever reason, that focus seems much more evident in games played at the Breslin Center but is heavily diminished in games played on the road, moreover in conference play. In its nine games played during Big Ten season thus far, MSU is 4-1 at the Breslin, 1-2 in away games and 0-1 at neutral sites.
As the team prepares to take on the University of Nebraska (10-11, 4-5 Big Ten) Thursday, the Spartans are eager in their chances to upend a Cornhusker team that recently upset then-No. 20 Purdue at home.
The key to doing so? Diligence and persistence.
“I think my team is on high alert,” head coach Tom Izzo said at his weekly press conference Tuesday. “We sometimes bring different energy at home and on the road. But, I don’t think it is because of the alertness. We haven’t accomplished anything yet. Who have we beaten? We have not put any consistency together yet at all. I don’t think we needed that win to do it.”
With the four-day midweek turnaround, the Spartans are tasked with taking the win against U-M — which snapped a season-long three-game losing streak — into their second straight win and their first win on the road since Dec. 27, when MSU opened conference play against Minnesota.
“We’ll come out lackadaisical and not focused, and that’s what beat us against Penn State, Ohio State and Indiana,” freshman forward Miles Bridges said after the team’s practice Tuesday. “We came out slow every time, so we just have to continue to stay focused … we can’t let the Michigan game get to us. We just have to keep going and get better.”
In all three of the team’s most recent losses, lapses in the backcourt paired with troubles executing offensive play calls resulted in the opposing team coming away with a victory.
Against Ohio State and Indiana, MSU was able to cut once marginal leads down to single digits in the final minutes of the second half but came up short. Against Purdue, a tie against the ranked Boilermakers couldn’t be sustained, and not making headstrong plays late in the game resulted in a loss.
“We’ll come out lackadaisical and not focused,” Bridges said. “We came out slow every time.”
For junior guard Lourawls “Tum Tum” Nairn Jr., the team will have to avoid its recent pattern of winning a string of games at home but losing footing on the road.
“We have to look for perfection when it comes to playing consistently and playing with extreme focus for 40 minutes,” Nairn said. “It’s hard to do, but that’s our goal. We’ve had some games where we play for 35 minutes, 30 minutes, 37 minutes and we have to continue to try and put together a full 40.”
Nebraska comes in a similar team to MSU, featuring two forward and three guards in the typical starting lineup. Senior guard Tai Webster comes in shooting 44.4 percent shooting from the field and averaging 18.1 points per game, and a Big Ten-best 19.7 points a game in conference play. Sophomore guard Glynn Watson Jr. completes the main scoring tandem for Nebraska shooting 42.4 percent from beyond the arc and an average of 17 points per contest in conference play.
The Cornhuskers have also gone through their non-conference gauntlet early in the season. With losses to UCLA, Creighton and Kansas — all ranked teams at some point this season — they’ve also earned wins against an Indiana team who defeated the Spartans, along with a Maryland team now ranked in the top-25.
Injuries have also plagued Nebraska’s starting lineup, as sophomore forward Ed Morrow has missed the last five games with a foot injury, but could make his return against MSU. Prior to his injury, Morrow averaged 10.1 points per game and a team-high 7.9 rebounds per game.
Even if Morrow were to return, Nebraska ranks No. 12 in the conference in both scoring offense and defense, combining for the worst scoring margin, +0.1, in the Big Ten. Nebraska will also come into the game against MSU ranked No. 12 in field goal defense, No. 12 in field goal shooting, No. 13 in 3-point shooting and No.13 in the conference in defending shots from beyond the arc.
Nebraska’s below-average shooting defense gives the MSU wing players the advantage on paper, especially from the perimeter. Fifth-year senior guard Eron Harris and freshman guard Josh Langford, both starters, can get MSU to establish a rhythm by taking shots early. Senior guard Alvin Ellis III and sophomore guard Matt McQuaid can also provide shooting depth off the bench.
McQuaid could also see an increased role after converting on 3-for-5 shots from the field against U-M. All three of McQuaid’s made shots against the Wolverines were from 3-point range.
Even with the paper matchup favoring MSU, Webster and Watson combine for the best scoring duo in the conference through Big Ten play so far. The Spartans are also susceptible to giving up triples in their recent games on the road.
As the team continues to work on its focus for the game against the Cornhuskers, the energy crisis for the Spartans can be mended with fundamental play on both sides of the ball.
“It’s one thing we can fix,” McQuaid said in accordance to focus. “But when we bring it to a game we have to keep reminding, we have to focus on defense first then offense.”
Tipoff is scheduled for 7 p.m. at Pinnacle Bank Arena in Lincoln, Neb.