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Nebraska WBB vs Michigan Preview

Some opinion and “analysis” and a look at the Thursday night matchup as the Huskers go for the sweep of the Wolverines

NCAA Womens Basketball: Nebraska at Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Nebraska Cornhuskers at Michigan Wolverines
Thursday, February 7, 2019, 6 p.m. (CT)
Crisler Arena (12,707) - Ann Arbor, Michigan
Live TV: BTN (Mike Monaco, Julianne Viani)
Live Radio: Husker Sports Network (5:45 p.m.); Matt Coatney (PBP), Jeff Griesch (Analyst); Lincoln-B107.3 FM; Omaha-ESPN 590 AM, Huskers App, TuneIn

On the last game thread the question came up, “What is wrong?”. The reference was, of course, to the fact that this team should have a better record than they do. The core of last year’s 20+ win team remained largely intact and gained another season of experience. There was an infusion of talent in the form of a Top 20 recruiting class.

So, why have the Huskers appeared to take a step back?

Here’s my “analysis”, and it is worth every penny you are paying to read it.

Last season’s team succeeded because of the roles players assumed. They were good all-round players who played their particular role to perfection. They were orchestrated by a point guard playing top notch basketball. Coach Williams knew what she needed and what she’d get out of particular players in particular situations and she deployed them masterfully. The best part was that everyone had a different, but complementary, role. What one player did well helped another player do their part well.

It was team basketball at its finest.

Fast forward to 2018-19. This is a team that is pressing.

Everyone seems to be trying to do a little more. Normally, that would be a good thing. You want to see improvement. You want to see younger players pushing up the level of competition for playing time. You want versatility in roles.

It feels like “more” has just thrown off this team’s pitch perfect harmony a bit. I don’t sense any infighting or squabbles (I have no inside sources so I could be wrong on that) but rather the opposite. Players are trying to take more leadership responsibility. Trying to score a little more. Trying to rebound more forcefully. It hasn’t helped that the point guard position has been manned by players not entirely healthy in Hannah Whitish (although she looks full speed in recent games) and grad transfer Kristian Hudson (who needed foot surgery early on and is out for the season.)

Sometimes “more” can be less. In this case, I think that “more” is leading to less of the complimentary plays where it seems like two players just know what each other are thinking. Part of that is youth. Six of the nine players who are significant contributors right now (the 10th on the active roster, Grace Mitchell, has been battling a foot injury and playing sparingly) are true freshman or true sophomores.

What they need more of is time. As impatient as I am, I want to see games like they played vs Purdue every time out. I want to see the W’s pile up and have that success lead to more energy, talented recruits, and postseason accolades. I’m sure other fans do too.

We have seen significant defensive improvement through the arc of this season. We’ve seen some quarters (and sometimes multiple quarters in a game) where there are glimpses of what is to come offensively. Early in the season, the Huskers were a very turnover-prone team. They now lead the Big Ten (conference games only) in turnover margin at +2.3. That is incredibly impressive for such a young team. Amy Williams and her staff are getting the chords sorted out one verse at a time.

For this season at least, I will try to focus on additional signs of that improvement.

But that won’t stop me from having too-high expectations again next fall.

Game Preview

[Belated] Shoutout to Nebraska women’s basketball SID Jeff Griesch who provides the excellent pre- and post- breakdowns I use each game. I add my $.02 here and there, but most of this comes straight from the athletic department. We are pretty lucky to have an SID at Nebraska that does such a nice job with women’s hoops!

Nebraska rallied for a 70-56 win over Michigan to open Big Ten Conference play on Dec. 28. The Huskers outscored the Wolverines 33-13 in the fourth quarter after scoring just 37 points in the first three quarters. Michigan led 43-37 at the end of three quarters, before Nicea Eliely scored all of her game-high 14 points in the final period to spark the Huskers.

Thursday’s game features several of the Big Ten’s best freshmen, including the defending conference co-freshmen of the week in Nebraska’s Sam Haiby and Michigan’s Naz Hillmon. Haiby had her best week in Big Ten play last week by averaging 15.0 points and 2.0 assists while hitting 10-of-15 shots from the field, including 3-of-4 three-pointers, and 7-of-8 free throws. Haiby hit three shots to beat the buzzer last week, including a half-court runner to end the third period at Purdue.

Another featured freshman match-up is Nebraska’s Leigha Brown (Auburn, Ind.) and Michigan’s Amy Dilk (Carmel, Ind.). Brown is averaging 10.3 points in 19.2 minutes off the bench in Big Ten play after coming to Nebraska as a runner-up for Indiana Player-of-the-Year honors at DeKalb High School in 2018. Dilk, who is averaging 9.1 points in 35.5 minutes per Big Ten game for Michigan, was the 2018 Indiana Player of the Year.

Nebraska Cornhuskers (10-12, 5-6 Big Ten)
44 - Kayla Mershon - 6-3 - Fr. - F - 3.0 ppg, 2.8 rpg
31 - Kate Cain - 6-5 - So. - C - 7.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg
3 - Hannah Whitish - 5-9 - Jr. - G - 10.2 ppg, 2.9 rpg
5 - Nicea Eliely - 6-1 - Jr. - G - 7.9 ppg, 4.0 rpg
33 - Taylor Kissinger - 6-1 - So. - G - 8.9 ppg, 3.6 rpg

Off the Bench
32 - Leigha Brown - 6-1 - Fr. - F - 9.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg
4 - Sam Haiby - 5-9 - Fr. - G - 10.0 ppg, 3.2 rpg
13 - Ashtyn Veerbeek - 6-2 - Fr. - F - 8.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg
24 - Maddie Simon - 6-2 - Sr. - F - 7.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg
14 - Grace Mitchell - 6-2 - Jr. - F - 1.2 ppg, 1.3 rpg
11(out) - Kristian Hudson - 5-5 - Sr. - G - 2.4 ppg, 1.6 rpg

Head Coach: Amy Williams (Nebraska, 1998) Third Season at Nebraska (38-45); 12th Season Overall (231-154)

Michigan Wolverines (14-9, 5-6 Big Ten)
15 - Hailey Brown - 6-1 - So. - F - 7.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg
30 - Hallie Thome - 6-5 - Sr. - F/C - 12.9 ppg, 6.0 rpg
1 - Amy Dilk - 6-0 - Fr. G - 7.7 ppg, 3.7 rpg
10 - Nicole Munger - 5-11 - Sr. - G - 10.4 ppg, 3.1 rpg
20 - Deja Church - 5-10 - So. - G - 8.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg

Off the Bench
00 - Naz Hillmon - 6-2 - Fr. - F - 12.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg
5 - Kayla Robbins - 6-1 - Jr. - G/F - 5.3 ppg, 3.2 rpg
14 - Akienreh Johnson - 6-0 - Jr. - G - 4.5 ppg, 3.0 rpg
21 - Samantha Trammel - 6-0 - Sr. - F - 0.8 ppg, 0.7 rpg

Head Coach: Kim Barnes Arico (Montclair State, 1993) Seventh Season at Michigan (148-82); 23rd Season Overall (418-287)

Scouting the Michigan Wolverines

Michigan put together its first back-to-back Big Ten wins this past weekend. The Wolverines ran to a 90-81 win over No. 13 Iowa on Friday morning at Crisler Arena, before battling to a 76-70 win at Wisconsin on Sunday. The Huskers have lost to both of these teams this season.

Michigan is 9-1 in Ann Arbor this season, but just 3-7 on the road. Michigan is 1-5 in Big Ten road games.

The Wolverines finished 23-10 overall last year, including 10-6 in the Big Ten. Michigan finished sixth in the Big Ten standings before falling to Nebraska in the Big Ten quarterfinals. The Wolverines went on to advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

Michigan features a good blend of experience and youth. Hallie Thome, a 6-5 senior center leads Michigan with 13.7 points and 6.9 boards in Big Ten play, after averaging 17.4 points and 7.0 boards in 2017-18. Thome had 14 points and seven rebounds in the first meeting this season at Nebraska.

Fellow senior Nicole Munger has led the Michigan starting backcourt with 10.4 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. The 5-11 guard has knocked down a team-best 46 threes. Munger is shooting 35.7 percent (46-129) from long range, but her production has dropped to 9.5 points and 2.4 rebounds in Big Ten play, while she is shooting just 28.6 percent (16-56) from beyond the arc. Munger is 36-of-39 (.923) at the free throw line this season. Munger managed four points at Nebraska (Dec. 28).

Sophomores Deja Church (8.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 2.5 apg) and Hailey Brown (7.5 ppg, 4.5 rpg) have joined Thome and Munger in the Michigan starting five for every game this season. Church just missed a double-double with nine points and nine rebounds at Nebraska, while Brown added 12 points.

Freshman guard Amy Dilk, the 2018 Indiana High School Player of the Year, has also started every game and is averaging 7.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 4.5 assists on the season. Her production has increased to 9.1 points and 5.2 assists in Big Ten play. Although she was just 1-for-11 from three-point range in non-conference play, Dilk is 5-for-8 from beyond the arc in league play. Dilk is averaging 35.5 minutes in Big Ten games. She had seven points, four rebounds and three assists at NU.

Freshman Naz Hillmon has been Michigan’s most explosive player this season. The 6-2 forward is averaging 12.7 points and a team-best 6.7 rebounds despite playing just 21.7 minutes per game. Hillmon, who also leads Michigan with 60 fouls, is shooting a superb 67.4 percent (126-187) from the field. She is a four-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week, including sharing the honor with Nebraska’s Sam Haiby (Feb. 4). Hillmon was held to four points and five rebounds in the opener at Nebraska.

As a team in Big Ten play, Michigan is averaging 70.2 points per game, while allowing 72.1. In non-conference play, the Wolverines were holding foes to just 55.8 points per game. The Wolverines own a plus-2.6 rebound margin in the league after dominating the boards (44.7-30.8) in non-conference action. Michigan is shooting a solid 44.3 percent from the field and 32.9 percent (46-140) from three-point range in Big Ten play. Michigan has hit just 66 percent of its free throws in league play.

Game Guesses

The Wolverines will be out to avenge their earlier loss to the Huskers and will have home court advantage. They have momentum (a two-game win streak including one over a highly ranked Iowa team).

If we see the version of Nebraska that played Wisconsin, it will be a big Wolverine win. If we see the Huskers that played Purdue, it will be a Big Red victory. More likely, we will see something in between, and that makes this game anyone’s guess. If the Huskers can get their three-point stroke back on track (it was really miserable in their last outing vs Indiana) this is the game to do it. The Wolverines are the worst team in conference play when it comes to defending the three-point line.

A lot will also fall on Cain, Mershon, Verbeek and Simon to keep Michigan’s front court in check. Do that, and it could be Husker win. If Thome and Co. run wild, it will be a long night in Ann Arbor for Husker fans.