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Nebraska Preview: What It Will Take to Win in Lincoln

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As we surely all know by now, Nebraska is 16-1 this year at the Devaney Center, including 5-1 in Big 12 play.

Only Texas and Missouri have a better conference home record. Texas is just really good anywhere, and the Tigers' edge seems to come from Mike Anderson's energetic style that is kicked up a notch in home games. Some would also say (I'm not sure I buy this theory) Missouri benefits to an unusual degree from more favorable calls in Columbia then elsewhere.

With Nebraska, though, it's a little tougher to discern why the homecourt advantage would be so stark. 

First of all, let's be clear, Nebraska has not been a dominant home team in the Doc Sadler era. Before this season, the Huskers were merely 16-16 in conference home games since Sadler took over in 2006.

Yes, that's significantly better than their road record (6-26). Yes, the Huskers have beaten everyone except Kansas and Baylor at the Devaney Center in the last four seasons and have an impressive 4-4 record against ranked teams over that span. But no one has ever really been afraid of going to Lincoln. Only Texas Tech and Oklahoma haven't won there with Sadler at the helm (both are 0-2).

I suppose it's possible that teams get thrown off by the terrible aesthetics of the 25-year-old arena that looks like a middle school gym compared to Nebraska's football stadium, or maybe visiting teams are just annoyed that they're spending time in Lincoln. But I don't think the Nebraska crowd or the history of the program intimidates anyone.

So how concerned should we be about the trip to Lincoln on Wednesday, considering the Wildcats dominated Nebraska in Manhattan? I would argue luck has played a big factor in Nebraska's home and road discrepancy, and this game is a lot more winnable for Kansas St. than some people might think.

Nebraska doesn't usually get great crowds, but you'd think their fans would be inspired to come out and support their team that has NCAA tourney aspirations during the week of Presidents' Day for the first time since 1999. In the two days following the holiday 12 years ago, The Real Slim Shady LP was released, then K-State crushed the Huskers in Bramlage. Rap music and Nebraska basketball haven't been the same since.

As much I hoped and expected Nebraska would be near the bottom of the conference in its final season, the Huskers have overcome the odds and improved significantly from last year's 12th place finish. It's quite remarkable, considering they lost two starting guards (Ryan Anderson and Sek Henry) who combined for almost 19 points and 8 rebounds per game, and their only notable additions were two juco transfers (Caleb Walker and Andre Almeida)  who have combined to add a little more athleticism on the wing, a lot of size and bulk inside, and a combined 36 minutes, 12 points and 7 rebounds per game.

But Lance Jeter, Brian Jorge Diaz and Brandon Richardson have all made significant improvements offensively, and the team's adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom has improved from 96.4 points allowed per 100 possessions last season to 89.8 this year.

It seems 18-8 is right about where the Huskers should be. They've been a lot more competitive in every game this season, but Nebraska is 4-0 in games decided by five points or less at the Devaney Center, and 1-3 in true road games (1-4 if you count neutral site games) decided by the same margin. That could be the Huskers playing with more poise down the stretch at home, or it could just be luck.

Last week, Nebraska finally caught a break on the road when officials retroactively decided to take a point away from Cade Davis and prevent Oklahoma from getting a last-second shot. Perhaps this week Nebraska's good home karma will finally run out, and Kansas State can win a close one.

The keys to victory for Kansas State are much the same as they were in Manhattan, when the Wildcats outhustled and outrebounded the Huskers by enough to easily overcome what many will forget was actually a below average shooting night for a 69-53 win.

I wouldn't expect the Huskers to commit 22 turnovers again, and they'll probably play with some more energy with so much at stake in front of a home crowd. But I think K-State wins this one as long as it doesn't fall asleep or go through prolonged cold stretches shooting the basketball, which is far from a guarantee with this team.

The Wildcat guards match up well with Nebraska, and if just one of them can get hot this time, it could make a big difference. In Manhattan, no one hit more than one three-pointers, which is certainly a credit to Nebraska's D.

Plus, while Nebraska's halfcourt defense can do a great job of harassing post-up oriented big men like Gary Johnson and Tristan Thompson, the Huskers have never really done a great job of slowing down Curtis Kelly and Jamar Samuels, who are happier to start on the perimeter or play a face-up game from 10-15 feet out. In fact, Samuels and Kelly's combined 24 points against Nebraska in the first meeting is the highest total for the two forwards in K-State's last nine games.

On the other end, though, that lack of size and bulk will create some difficulties for Kansas State. It'll be even more noticeable than it was in Manhattan, since last week's Big 12 Newcomer of the Week, Andre Almeida, is back. He's listed at 315 pounds — or nearly two Will Spradling — and if his 5-for-5 game against Texas was any indication, he's playing some of his best basketball at the moment.

If he gets going, it seems unlikely Kelly, Samuels, or Jordan Henriquez-Roberts would be able to stop him without some help. The same probably goes for 6-11 Jorge Brian Diaz, so that's certainly an area of concern. K-State's best bet is to go right at Almeida and hope he gets into foul trouble, like he has in the last four games.

Transition offense and pushing the pace will also be important, as K-State would be only the second team to reach 69 in Lincoln this season if it can replicate its performance earlier this month against the vaunted Huskers defense. The first team to do it, obviously, was Kansas. Free throw shooting has recently become a valuable weapon for Kansas State (above 90% last game!), so if I'm Frank, I'm encouraging Pullen, Kelly and Samuels to attack the basket as much as they can, as long as they're aware Nebraska will make them pay for getting out of control and forcing shots.

Although Jeter poses some matchup problems with his ability to penetrate and shoot over or through Pullen and other small guards, Nebraska doesn't have any great scorers. Southwell's ever-improving defense should mean he can handle Toney McCray, or maybe even switch over to Jeter if it becomes necessary. The keys to stopping Nebraska will be good help defense, defending screens, and not giving up easy layups on plays like backdoor cuts, all of which have been problems at one time or another for Kansas State.

Just in case I'm making this sound too easy, keep in mind most of these things are similar to what Texas needed to do to get a win last Saturday. Obviously, that didn't work out so well, and now Nebraska has even more to play for and even more confidence. A much better K-State team easily snapped a five-game losing streak at the Devaney Center last season with a big game from Denis Clemente, but this one will be tougher, and probably a lot closer.

 

 

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