Michigan basketball vs. Nebraska on Christmas: Scouting report, prediction

Orion Sang, Detroit Free Press
·4 min read

Michigan basketball has played on Christmas Day only once before.

But after a 12-day layoff, the Wolverines will play their second Big Ten game at Nebraska on Friday. They will be one of eight Big Ten teams to play on Christmas, joining Wisconsin and Michigan State; Maryland and Purdue; and Iowa and Minnesota.

“It was brought up that that was a possibility where we all possibly have the opportunity to play on Christmas Day and the day after Christmas," said coach Juwan Howard on Wednesday. “They asked would Michigan be interested. I talked to my players, all of them were excited about the opportunity to play on Christmas Day. So we were fortunate enough to be one of the lucky teams to have a game on Christmas. And we’re excited about the opportunity to play in Lincoln, Nebraska to compete against Nebraska.”

Here's what to watch in Friday's game (6 p.m., Big Ten Network):

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Any rust?

Michigan forward Isaiah Livers (2) pushes away head coach Juwan Howard as the referee calls a technical foul on Howard during the second half against Toledo at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Michigan forward Isaiah Livers (2) pushes away head coach Juwan Howard as the referee calls a technical foul on Howard during the second half against Toledo at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

Michigan will have gone nearly two weeks since its last game when it steps onto the court Friday — an unusual situation the Wolverines rarely deal with.

“Can’t be looking for excuses, nor are we,” Howard said. “We will not make excuses with the schedule that we have in front of us. We try to of course be respectful and also be smart with your off time. We’re preparing for Nebraska. Looking forward to the challenge Friday. We know it’s gonna be a very competitive game. First road game for us. So we’re looking forward to the matchup.”

It'll be worth monitoring if Michigan starts slowly. The Wolverines (6-0, 1-0 Big Ten) are favored against the Cornhuskers (4-4, 0-1), but have had stretches where they look rather ordinary against teams like Oakland and Central Florida. It'll be more difficult to win on the road if Michigan digs itself into an early deficit due to sloppy play.

Slowing down Nebraska

Michigan guard Chaundee Brown makes a layup against Toledo during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.
Michigan guard Chaundee Brown makes a layup against Toledo during the first half at Crisler Center in Ann Arbor, Wednesday, Dec. 9, 2020.

Under the direction of Fred Hoiberg, who is in his second season as head coach, the Cornhuskers like to play fast. They ranked No. 16 in pace last season, according to KenPom.com, and are currently No. 34 (and third in the Big Ten). Nebraska is always looking to attack in transition and has an impressive defensive turnover rate of 21.5%; it also likes to jack up 3s, with outside shots representing 45.9% of the team's field goal attempts (No. 33 nationally).

Unfortunately for Hoiberg, the roster seemingly struggles with his style of play. The Cornhuskers are shooting 31.5% from 3-point range, which ranks No. 213; they shoot 47.8% on 2s, which ranks No. 207; and they make 65% of their free throws, which ranks No. 270. Yes, Nebraska plays fast. But a lot of those quick possessions can result in clanked jumpers. If Michigan can limit the quality of 3-point looks the Cornhuskers generate and force them to make difficult shots, it should be able to slow down the offense enough to win.

Few familiar faces

As Hoiberg remakes his roster, he has relied heavily on the transfer portal, which means viewers may be hard-pressed to recognize many of the players in Nebraska's rotation. None of the team's six leading scorers played for the Cornhuskers last season. Teddy Allen is the leading scorer this season, averaging 17.4 points on 44.6% shooting and 14 shots per game; no other player is averaging double-digit shots. The junior college product is a volume shooter hitting 34% of his 3s. Forward Dalano Banton, a Western Kentucky transfer, has shown considerable promise, averaging 13.9 points and leads the team with 7.8 rebounds and 5.5 assists. Pittsburgh transfer Trey McGowens is the third-leading scorer with 10.6 points per game and has made 40.9% of his 3s — the only player on the roster making above 40% from deep.

Prediction

Michigan's Hunter Dickinson dunks in the second half vs. Penn State at Crisler Center on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Ann Arbor.
Michigan's Hunter Dickinson dunks in the second half vs. Penn State at Crisler Center on Sunday, Dec. 13, 2020, in Ann Arbor.

Michigan looks to be the better team. The Wolverines have been more efficient on offense this season and, despite some inconsistency, field a stingier defense. Michigan has a significant advantage down low with freshman center Hunter Dickinson, who is averaging a team-high 15.7 points and 7.3 rebounds. Dickinson has a four-inch height advantage over Banton, Lat Mayen and Yvan Ouedraogo, who are all listed at 6 feet 9. Michigan should be able to feed its talented center, and if Nebraska sends help down low, the Wolverines have enough shooters to impact the game from the 3-point line. There might be early struggles due to the long layoff, but this is a game Michigan should win. The pick: Michigan 73, Nebraska 66

Contact Orion Sang at osang@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @orion_sang. Read more on the Michigan Wolverines and sign up for our Wolverines newsletter.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan basketball on Christmas at Nebraska: Scouting report, pick