Who said a rival has to be from the same conference as you? That’s what we have here with the Nebraska Cornhuskers and the Creighton Bluejays. The to biggest programs in the state of Nebraska meet up for their annual tussle on the hardwood. The series has been dominated by the Jays ever since the Danny Nee era ended at Nebraska, which was right at the time when Dana Altman was getting things figured out in Omaha. When Nee left after the 1999-00 season, Altman was taking his team to the second of five consecutive NCAA tournament appearances. Nebraska was beginning a decade and a half of futility.
Since the Huskers beat the Jays 76-60 on Dec. 9, 1998, the two teams have met 16 times. NU has found themselves in the winning column four times. The only time one of those wins did not happen in the Devaney Center was when Nate Johnson hit a shot at the end of the game to beat the Jays in the NIT in 2004. Otherwise, this is a series that has been dominated by Creighton and frankly, most of the games haven’t been close. The Jays have been the team that featured NBA talent. The Jays were the team contending for conference titles and going to the NCAA tournament (ten times since 1999). NU struggled. They haven’t sent a player to the NBA since 1998. And before last season, the Huskers didn’t finish with a .500 conference record, much less a top half finish in the Big 12 or Big 10, or an NCAA tournament berth. This has been a blue state.
Many times Nebraska basketball fans have thought the tide was about to turn. Surely with Rodney Buford gone the Jays will take a step back and NU will jump back on top. Surely when Kyle Korver graduates the Big Red will take over. How will they replace Ryan Sears or Tyler McKinney? Who’s this McDermott guy? You see, the difference is that the Jays had a program. They had a coach who was able to establish an identity and recruit to it with great success. Nebraska was never able to establish that under Barry Collier or Doc Sadler.
But along came this new guy. Tim Miles was the benefactor of a variety of circumstances that all came together at the same time and, so far, has been able to do what Coller and Sadler could not. Get talent, develop it and establish an identity. And for the first time he has brought excitement to the Nebraska basketball program along with expectations. For the first time, the Huskers carry the weight of expectation heading into this I-80 matchup. The Huskers are the ones returning a team full of experience and an NCAA pedigree. The Jays are still finding their way, replacing not only the best player in program history, but just about their entire starting five off of last year’s squad that ground this Huskers team into fine dust a year ago.
How have they done that? I turned to Jacob Padilla of The Creightonian to ask him that and get some of his thoughts leading up to the game. I started there, how have the Jays replaced so much of what was a machine of a team last season?
JP: It's been a mixed bag so far. Somehow, they are still ranked No. 26 in KenPom's offensive rankings, but lately the offense has been a mess. The Jays have gone through several bad offensive halves where they can't even make a shot. In the past, the team turned to Doug McDermott in those moments, and they're struggling to find someone or some way to replace him and his ability to get the team a bucket when it desperately needed it.
Creighton is 15th in the country in 3-point attempts, but only 171st in percentage at a mediocre 34 percent. Only two players on the roster - Zierden (44.9) and freshman power forward Toby Hegner (37.1) are shooting above average percentages right now, while the rest of the rotation is shooting 27.1 percent. Creighton's system is all about moving the ball and letting it fly from the perimeter, but they're getting stuck in ruts where the ball doesn't move with the same purpose as last year, and they clearly don't have the same caliber of shooters.
However, the Jays still have a lot of guys who are capable of playing well as the team's balance shows. They just need to figure out how to be more consistent with their production, and they certainly need to shoot better. Senior point guard Austin Chatman in particular is only shooting 32.3 percent after firing at a 38.9 percent clip last season. Chatman is doing a lot of good things and is still the team's most important player, but his shooting struggles are really limiting the positive impact he can make. He missed a lot of time this summer and fall while recovering from thumb and knee surgeries, though, so the hope is that he'll be able to find his legs and his rhythm soon.
CN: CU struggles on the boards, about the same as last year at only 35 a game, and this
is something that the Huskers still struggle to do as well. How do you see the game inside to impact this game?
JP: Neither team has a strong interior presence; Creighton is built around its guards and Nebraska around its wings. Creighton does have a three-man center rotation along with a 6-foot-10-inch four providing plenty of size, but those guys have not rebounded nearly as well as they need to. In fact, Creighton's guards lead the team in rebounding as often as the bigs do (Chatman and Devin Brooks are both excellent rebounders for their size, but they're still small guards). It looks to me like Nebraska is in a similar situation, as Walter Pitchford has struggled mightily and is more of a perimeter big anyway, and Moses Abraham is a very limited player. If anything, I think there will be some opportunities for Shields and Petteway on the offensive glass if Creighton's bigs don't come ready to play.
CN: How do you expect the Jays to defend Petteway and Shields?
JP: Good question. Avery Dingman, a 6-foot-6-inch senior, suffered a severely sprained ankle in the preseason and only just made his return a few games ago. He's played a total of 35 minutes this season, and clearly isn't back to full strength. He was going to be the team's primary wing defender this season. You'll still see him guarding one of the two for at least part of the game, but I'm not sure how many minutes he's ready to play. Creighton goes small with three guards a good amount with Zierden or James Milliken playing at the three, but both of those guys are listed at 6 feet 2 inches and might struggle against the length of Shields or Petteway. Ricky Kreklow, a senior transfer from California, plays both the three and the four and will probably see plenty of time on one or both of the Cornhuskers' star wings.
Petteway gets most of the publicity, but Shields is the player I most fear on the Nebraska roster. He's having a ridiculous season thus far. The Jays are going to be hard pressed to limit both Shields and Petteway with the way their roster is constructed.
CN: Are the Jays prepared to handle what’s certain to be as rowdy an atmosphere as they’ll likely see all year?
JP: I think the answer until proven otherwise is no. Creighton is terrific at home in the friendly confines of CenturyLink Center Omaha (Husker fans might recall that from last year's meeting) but this season's team is just 1-2 away from home, with the only win coming on a neutral court against a bad Middle Tennessee team. If this game was being played in Omaha, I'd feel infinitely more optimistic about the Jays' chances. But at PBA, it is going to be difficult.
CN: Alright, I’m not doing my job if I don’t ask this question, but how do you see this game going on Sunday. Give me a prediction.
JP: Well, the last time I picked Creighton to lose (Oklahoma) it turned out pretty well for me. The last line I saw in this game was -7 for Nebraska; I'm going to say the Huskers wins but don't get the cover as the Jays showcase some of the fight that they found in themselves against Oklahoma and keep the outcome in doubt.
Big thanks to Jacob for taking some time to answer those questions. Tonight's game tips off at 6 PM and can be seen on BTN.