LINCOLN — Months ago, Nebraska was a contender.
Weeks ago, a bubble team.
Now, the Huskers are the underdog.
“We got nothing to lose,” sophomore Thomas Allen said after practice Wednesday.
Nebraska (15-13, 5-12) plays at No. 9 Michigan on Thursday in a game even hard-core Husker fans don’t expect it to win. The Wolverines have one of the top defenses in the country, are in the hunt for a Big Ten regular-season title and angry after a loss to rival Michigan State over the weekend.
Nebraska has lost nine of its past 11. The previous four road games haven’t gone well, especially last time out at Penn State. The season isn’t just spiraling, but out of control.
Which is why the underdog title is stamped onto Nebraska, and will be for the remainder of this season.
“They’re playing for a conference championship, they can’t afford to lose,” coach Tim Miles said. “But we should be able to play loose and free because we have nothing to lose. They have a lot more at stake than we do. So let’s just go and let it go, baby. Let’s play hard.”
After appearing in the national title game a season ago, John Beilein’s team is 24-4 and 13-4 in conference play. The Wolverines are third in the Big Ten, one game behind Purdue and Michigan State.
Defensively, they overwhelm teams with their length and grit. Teams shoot 29.8 percent from 3-point range, 14th in the country, against them. On average, teams score 86 points in 100 possessions, which is third nationally.
Add that to Michigan’s embarrassing amount of scoring ability.
Junior Isaiah Roby will be tasked with guarding Ignas Brazdeikis, a 6-foot-7 freshman from Ontario who leads Michigan with 14.4 points per game. The Wolverines spread the wealth, with wings Jordan Poole and Charles Matthews, who also average double digits. Tanner Borchardt will be tasked with slowing down 7-1 Jon Teske, and Glynn Watson will have to deal with junior guard Zavier Simpson.
Against Michigan, Nebraska has to be aggressive, Miles said. Last year, NU handled Michigan in a 20-point win Jan. 18. But in the Big Ten tournament, Michigan switched up its screen-and-roll defense and booted NU out of NCAA tournament consideration with a 77-58 counterpunch.
“We broke down what we think they’ll do and tried to teach it just better, and hopefully (we’re) ready for it,” Miles said.
NU is a 12-point underdog and, beyond that one win at Indiana on Jan. 14, has struggled on the road this year. The 95-71 loss to Penn State was so bad, Miles looked down the bench at his assistants and they all shrugged. The team they saw in practice all week was just gone, replaced by guys who wouldn’t talk to each other on the sideline and weren’t on the same page.
That’s been the main focus the past few days after NU’s 75-72 loss to Purdue. Being on the same page. Approaching this game seriously, despite most of NU’s season goals now nearly unreachable.
“What can’t happen is, you think you’re ready, and you go in and all of a sudden somebody diagnosed hits their first two 3s and now it’s, we wonder what happened,” Miles said. “You gotta fight through that.”
Nebraska at Michigan
When: 5 p.m. Thursday
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM Nebraska City