Currently on a three-game win streak — the longest in the Big Ten at the moment — Ohio State coach Thad Matta doesn't want his team riding too high. He has seen that happen before this season.
"Every time this team feels good," Matta said Friday, "we crash and shoot ourselves in the foot."
|Nebraska (14-13, 6-8)||Pinnacle Bank Arena (Lincoln, Neb.)||7 p.m.||BTN|
The hope for Matta, of course, is that doesn't happen Saturday when the Buckeyes travel to Nebraska to take on a Huskers team that has proven to be a tough out at times this year, despite just being 14-13 overall and 6-8 in the Big Ten.
Ohio State still has NCAA tournament dreams — they're still slim at this point, but still possible — and a loss to Nebraska would put those in serious jeopardy. Because of that, the Buckeyes know how important Saturday's game is.
"We know we have to handle our business and then the rest will handle itself with the teams that are playing each other and stuff like that," sophomore center Trevor Thompson said. "It’s definitely a big emphasis, us being on our game and us controlling the things that we can control because if we go out and play as a team and play together and lock down defensively and get each other involved, we’re pretty confident that we can keep this going.”
Nebraska cooled off a bit since it went through a four-game win streak back in mid-January — a stretch that included a road victory at Michigan State. Since that win over the Spartans, though, the Huskers have lost five of their last seven.
Part of that is due to the absence of Shavon Shields — Nebraska's best player who missed the last three games with a concussion after suffering a horrendous fall in the Cornhuskers' win against Rutgers.
Nebraska is 1-2 in games without Shields with the lone victory coming against Penn State. The Huskers lost by double digits to both Wisconsin and Indiana in their two losses without their superstar.
Shields' status for Saturday remains uncertain — he hasn't practiced yet, according to the Lincoln Journal Star — so preparation is a bit more difficult for the Buckeyes, but Matta knows why type of player the Huskers could be without.
"Shields, we don't know if he’s going to play but we’ve gone against him for the 12 years that I’ve been here at Ohio State it seems like," Matta said. "I think if he’s good to go he’ll definitely play in this game against us.”
Nebraska ranks 94th in KenPom's advanced statistical ratings and ranks 65th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 142nd in adjusted defensive efficiency. The leading scorer for the Huskers the last three games without Shields was junior guard Andrew White, who is averaging 20 points per game during that stretch including a 35-point outburst in that victory against Penn State.
"They do play extremely hard; they’re well-coached," Matta said of the Huskers. "They’ve had some great, great wins this year and going to Nebraska, there’s going to be 16,000 people there [Saturday] going crazy and it’s a great college environment.”
Ohio State is coming off what was probably its best all-around performance since its win over Kentucky way back in December. The Buckeyes downed Michigan on Tuesday, 76-66, in a game they led comfortably throughout.
It was a balanced offensive attack for Ohio State, which seems to be when this team plays its best, as the Buckeyes put five guys in double figures and nobody scored more than 13 points.
“Definitely as a team we were very, very together and there was a different sense of morale around the locker room," Thompson said. "These last couple of days we’ve been really pushing it in practice and coming out as a team we just really executed, playing off each other and really getting each other in the right spots to help teammates finish.”
Ohio State's defense also overwhelmed the Wolverines at times as it limited Michigan to just 39 percent shooting from the field and a 5-for-24 effort from the behind the 3-point line.
It was one of the Buckeyes' most complete wins of the season and Matta said afterward he hoped to "bottle this up" as the team gets set to close out the regular-season.
“I think that’s the biggest message: Let’s go out and play like we’re capable of playing," Matta said. Let’s make sure that our minds are focused, where they need to be, and understand the game plan of what we’re attempting to do. Then, go out and execute, play basketball and enjoy yourself.
"Let’s hopefully capitalize on a three-game win streak, but I just want us to play a complete game and play our best basketball.”
How It Plays Out
Tough environment, on the road, against a team that has shown it can compete with some of the top teams in the Big Ten at times this season, this is certainly not going to be an easy game for Ohio State to win. But, at the same time, it's one the Buckeyes simply can't afford to lose.
Ohio State won't get much credit come the end of the year for a win against Nebraska, but it will certainly work against the Buckeyes should they lose.
It's obvious the Huskers are a much better team with Shields in the lineup, but they are a much different team without their superstar. With his status up in the air, it's hard to pick Nebraska here.
I think this one might be close throughout and ugly at times, but in the end, Ohio State pulls out a close win and keeps its slim NCAA tournament hopes alive.
Tim's prediction: Ohio State 67, Nebraska 64