The non-conference season is over and the Huskers start the full-time conference slate with six games versus 2020-21 NCAA tournament teams. Three of those teams are currently ranked and two in the top 10. The first game is at Michigan State, a team that has experienced a few bumps in the road so far in 2021. Thanks to our own Kevin Knight, whom we share with The Only Colors, for his insights into Nebraska’s next opponent!
Corn Nation: The Huskers and Spartans find themselves in opposite positions from preseason predictions. MSU was a 20-21 NCAA tournament team poised to challenge for a top 5 finish in the conference and Nebraska was an afterthought. What has MSU dealt with so far this season that has changed their prospects?
Kevin: Before the season even started during fall camp, Michigan State lost key depth in season-ending injuries to senior Tory Ozment and junior Julia Ayrault. Ozment was the third-leading scorer for MSU last season and Ayrault was a key player in the starting rotation. Both players combined for 28 starts last season and were expected to be big contributors this season.
Then, as if depth wasn’t enough of a problem with those two down, junior starting point guard Alyza Winston left the team abruptly in early December and entered the transfer portal. Winston was the second-leading scorer on the young season, averaging 12.2 ppg and 3.0 apg. While Winston was likely to be eclipsed as the starter by five-star freshman DeeDee Hagemann, she was a vital member of the roster. Her absence has since been felt as depth continues to be a problem for the Spartans.
All together, the three losses have taken what seemed a promising season and left the team floundering at 7-6 heading into Big Ten play.
Corn Nation: Despite the personnel losses, the Spartans still have superstar Nia Clouden. What does she bring to the table and who else should Husker fans keep their eye on?
Kevin: Oh man, what a player Clouden is. She just hung 50 points in a double-overtime loss to Florida Gulf Coast last week and looks to be a sure fire WNBA draftee at the end of the season. The senior guard out of Owings Mills, Maryland (Baltimore suburb) is averaging 21.7 ppg this season, good for seventh in the country.
Against Nebraska last season, she had what could almost be considered a “quiet” game with just 14 points in the lone matchup. However, she has only gotten better this year so far with eight 20+ point performances in 13 games. Those haven’t just come against “bad” teams either, as she scored 20 against No. 24 Notre Dame and 22 against West Virginia in addition to the aforementioned 50-point performance against FGCU.
Clouden can find ways to score on a defense, and trying to double-team her just means other players can step up and score instead.
Corn Nation: If you were Suzy Merchant, how would you game plan to attack a Husker team that is so balanced (seven different Huskers have been the team scoring leader or co-leader in twelve games so far this season) and very deep (all 13 Huskers are likely to see the floor and I expect at least 10 to play double digit minutes)?
Kevin: This will be a tough one for the Spartans. I am not really sure what exactly Merchant can game plan for defensively in this one. Defensively, the Spartans are not exactly elite. Holding teams to an average of 68.0 ppg is good for 11th in the Big Ten, while Nebraska is second at 55.4 ppg by opponents.
Out of the three Power-Six programs the Huskers played, Wake Forest was the only one held significantly below the season average, but Creighton was also stifled by almost double digits as well. Probably the best bet here is to crash the glass as much as possible and rely on your offense to keep it competitive.
To that end, there is no shortage of talent to turn to on what remains of the smaller roster, however. Two different freshman, DeeDee Hagemann and Matilda Ekh, have earned Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors this season. Other players on the roster have filled in as needed at times, and the well rested roster should have fresh legs at least having been off since Dec. 21.
Corn Nation: Predictions! The Huskers are 12-0 but have played a pretty light schedule - as evidenced by the fact the pollsters are not convinced enough to rank Nebraska. The Spartans may have lost some key pieces, but are always a tough team to play, especially in their own gym. What do you see for a final score in this one?
Kevin: The Brez is a tough venue, no offense to PBA. Nebraska is a talented roster, and in fact has a stronger strength of schedule than Michigan State does on the season. However, UNL’s resume to date is still more closely related to 2021 Iowa football than 2021 Husker football. This game should be a good measuring stick for Nebraska heading into the main Big Ten schedule as a result. A double-digit loss by UNL seems incredibly unlikely, and should be concerning if it somehow happened. Anything else would be a positive for the Husker women, and a double-digit win might as well just guarantee right now to plan for a trip to go dancing in March.
Huskers 76 - Spartans 72