All season long, the Huskers have struggled in the paint. Their depth in the post was toilet paper thin. When Moses Abraham went out with an injury to his hand, it turned into single ply. The Huskers struggled to defend the interior, and they became very easy to guard. All anyone had to do was pack the paint. Nebraska struggled to get to the rim, where they made their hay last year. They were a poor rebounding team and if Walter Pitchford and/or David Rivers got in foul trouble? Good night, Sally.
Tonight, that all changed, hopefully, for the Huskers sake, for good. In tonight's 65-49 win vs. Rugters, the Huskers got the gang all back together. Not only did Moses Abraham, who missed the past seven games with a hand injury return, but so did Leslee Smith. Smith, who was a critical piece of last season's NCAA tournament run had missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in the Bahammas playing for the Virgin Islands National Team during a qualifying game leading up to the FIBA World Cup. Neither one lit up the score sheet with stats or filled up the highlight reel with dynamic plays, but to anyone that watched the game, their impact on the team was noticable and, if they stay healthy, will be significant.
Just their presence on the court opened up driving lanes for Terran Petteway and Shavon Shields to get back to driving to the rim. Floor spacing was better and Smith especially is a skilled passer out of the post which helped free up things for the wing players for the Huskers. On the defensive end, no longer did the opposing team have relatively easy access to the rim. They changes shots, which forced Rutgers to take more jumpshots than they might have taken even a week ago. It didn't necessarily show up in the box score on this night, but the Husker rebounding efforts were eased as well. It just makes for a more balanced attack, something this team has been lacking.
NU has also benefited from the increased minutes from redshirt freshman Nick Fuller. His four points and four rebounds in 13 minutes of play provided a much needed spark off the bench and added to the newfound depth in Tim Miles' rotation. When you add Fuller, Smith and Abraham back into the mix, a rotation that was struggling to hang on with just seven players suddenly has been energized with an infusion just as the grind of the schedule hits. It's a welcome boost. Another significant factor in the Huskers improved play is they have been taking better care of the ball since conference play began. In non-conference play, they averaged 15 turnovers a game. Since Big Ten teams showed up on the schedule, NU has turned it over just 9 times per game.
Time will tell if they'll be able to put it together enough to make a run and get back into the tournament conversation. It will take a big effort to make it happen, but this is the team we were expecting to see from the start of the year. Let's make no mistake, Rutgers isn't a very good basketball team. They have one conference tournament victory and they may be hard pressed to get two more the rest of the way, but this game wasn't about the opponent, for the Huskers, it was about to start to remember how to play with each other. It was about trying to regain the confidence and swagger this team played with down the stretch last season and at times this evening, we saw that. Now we will see what happens when the opponent quality improves. Illinois is the next opponent. The Illini are a talented team but will be without their leading scorer Rayvonte Rice who injured his wrist in practice Monday and will be out indefinately after needing surgery to repair it. Illinois however did knock off #12 Maryland on Wednesday. Tip off will be at 7:30 at Pinnacle Bank Arena and can be seen on BTN.