By Tommy Rezac
The Nebraska men’s basketball team (7-4) has been idle for the last six days wrapping up final exams, but are ready to return to action this weekend with one of the most anticipated non-conference home games in recent memory.
Nebraska will host No. 13 Kansas (7-2) on Saturday night in front of a sold out crowd of more than 15,000 fans at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
Tip off for KU’s first ever trip to PBA is set for 7 p.m. Doors open at 5:30 p.m. and fans are encouraged to arrive early to beat long lines.
The game will carried live on KLIN (1400 AM) with pregame coverage starting at 6.
Nebraska will look to bounce back from a tough 75-65 loss at Creighton on Dec. 9.
One element from that loss Nebraska will look to build on is the emergence of junior forward Isaac Copeland, who dropped his first double-double as a Husker last Saturday with 20 points and 11 rebounds.
Copeland has scored 10 or more points in five of the last six games. The Huskers are 5-1 when he scores in double figures. So far this season, Copeland leads the team in rebounding (6.6 rpg), is second in blocked shots (1.2 bpg) and is third in scoring (12.7 ppg).
But with a week off due to finals, getting back into the swing of things and keeping a player like Copeland in a rhythm during time off can be difficult.
“That’s always a challenge,” Miles said. “It is kind of nice having Kansas, so to speak, on the back end of this, because you certainly have their attention.”
One player that needs to step up for Nebraska is sophomore center Jordy Tshimanga, who currently has more personal fouls (34) than he does total points (33). He was 0-of-5 from the floor against Creighton with two turnovers and two fouls in just 10 minutes of play.
Sophomore forward Isaiah Roby has played at a high level early on (6.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg, team-best 15 blocks). Head coach Tim Miles says there have been thoughts of taking Tshimanga out of the lineup in place of Roby, but no concrete decisions yet, especially with Roby picking up three fouls in the first half against Creighton.
“With Isaiah’s foul trouble, I just want him on the floor more,” Miles said. “We certainly could start small. We just have to find a way to get Isaiah on the floor more. We could start (Roby) at the wing, Copeland at the 4, and then Jordy (at the 5).”
Tshimanga, who’s the tallest player on the team at 6-11, averages 5.2 rebounds a game, which is second most on the team. He had a then career-high 10 points and eight rebounds against Kansas last year.
Previewing the Jayhawks
Kansas comes to Lincoln ranked 13th, looking to snap a two-game losing streak after losses to Washington (74-65) and now No. 5 Arizona State (95-85) both at Allen Fieldhouse last week. KU has lost back-to-back games this year for the first time since Dec. 2013.
Those losses bumped the Jayhawks from No. 2 to No. 13 in the Associated Press Top 25.
With an underwhelming start, Nebraska fully expects Kansas to come in hungry for a win.
“They’re going to come in eating a bowl of nails for breakfast,” Miles said, “and snorting smoke out of their ears and nose, because they’re Kansas and they’re mad and they’re not going to lose three in a row.”
Kansas hasn’t lost three straight since Feb. 2013, and while it may have been forgotten lately, KU is still dominant offensively, averaging 88.1 points per contest (16th best nationally), and shooting 52 percent from the field (seventh).
The Jayhawks also make 11.1 three-pointers per game (12th) while averaging 20.1 assists (second).
KU returns two starters from last year’s team that went 31-5 and reached the Elite 8 before falling to Oregon 74-60. One player back from that team is senior guard Devonte’ Graham, who averages 16.9 points and 7.7 assists (sixth best nationally) per contest.
“(Graham) can do a little bit of everything,” junior guard Glynn Watson said. “He can score on all three levels. He can also pass the balls, and get his guys open. Those guys around him make him better, too by making shots and getting him open.”
Kansas brings five players who average double figures, led by junior guard Lagerald Vick (18.7 ppg).
“(Vick) looks like the best athlete, and the quickest guy on the floor,” Miles said. “He looks really, really good.”
Senior guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (Svee-AT-uh-slahv Muh-Kie-Luke) from Cherkasy, Ukraine scores 15.1 points per game, and has made a team-high 30 three-pointers while shooting a solid 46.2 percent from long range.
Sophomore center Udoka Azubuike (Ew-Doe-Kuh Az-Uh-Boo-Kee) is KU’s big man, standing seven feet tall and weighing in at 280 pounds. He leads the Jayhawks in rebounding (7.4 rpg) while also chipping in 13.9 points on 78 percent shooting.
Making his Jayhawk debut on Saturday night is sophomore guard Sam Cunliffe, a transfer from Arizona State who had to sit out KU’s first nine games during the Fall 2017 semester due to NCAA rules.
He played and started in ten games at ASU in the fall of 2016, averaging 9.5 points and 4.8 rebounds in that span.
“I think that will really help them,” Miles said. “(Cunliffe) is very athletic, he can make threes. I think they’re excited about adding him to the lineup.”
Historically, it’s no secret that Kansas has been dominant against Nebraska over the years. KU is 171-71 all-time against the Big Red, and have won the last 18 meetings, including an 89-72 drubbing in Lawrence last year.
Nebraska hasn’t beat Kansas since Feb. 15, 2004; a game where unranked Nebraska upset then-No. 12 Kansas in Lincoln 74-55.
>> On the 60th anniversary of one of the biggest upsets in Nebraska basketball history, several Huskers from the 1957-58 team will be honored during the first half of Saturday’s game. That season, Nebraska knocked off Wilt Chamberlin’s No. 4 Jayhawks 43-41 at the Nebraska Coliseum. Jim Kubacki, who was in street clothes at the start of the game due to a knee injury, entered the game as a sub in the final minutes and hit the game-winning shot with two seconds to go.
“I saw the (game-winning) jumper that splashed,” Miles said. “I might have to suit (Jim Kubacki) up, because that’s the best looking jumper in a Husker uniform I’ve seen here in like six years.”
>> Kubacki, Bob Harry and Wayne Hester, along with family members of head coach Jerry Bush and Tony Sharpe, will be honored. The 57-58 team also beat No. 1 Kansas State following their win over No. 4 Kansas. They’re still one of only two teams in program history with a pair of top-five wins in a season.
>> Nebraska senior guard Anton Gill is getting his degree in communications studies on Saturday. After walking across the stage at Pinnacle Bank Arena in the morning, he’ll get to face off against a pedigree basketball program in the same building that evening.
“It’s a big accomplishment,” Gill said, “but I’m more focused on Kansas and how big that game is for us. That’s definitely a game we’ve had circled for awhile.”
>> The Nebraska volleyball team will be playing in the national championship on Saturday night at 8 p.m.; starting just an hour after Nebraska and Kansas tip off. As a treat for fans however, Pinnacle Bank Arena will be airing the championship match on the big screen at the conclusion of the basketball, giving fans the option to stay and watch the end of the volleyball match.
“I know (volleyball) starts at 8 and we start at 7, so I’m hoping the first half goes great for us,” Miles said, “because we’ll be airing the rest of their match after our game on the big screen.”
Done deal. We’ll be showing volleyball match on big screen right after game. #gbr
— Marc Boehm (@MarcBoehm1) December 15, 2017
You can contact Tommy at 402-840-5226, or you can follow him on Twitter @Tommy_KLIN.