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NIT Round Two Preview: Nebraska

Nebrasketball comes to Fort Worth looking for an upset

TCU Basketball vs Sam Houston State | NIT Round One | Fort Worth, TX | March 20 2019
TCU Basketball vs Sam Houston State | NIT Round One | Fort Worth, TX | March 20 2019
Melissa Triebwasser

Game Time: 8:30 PM CDT | Location: Ed and Rae Schollmaier Arena – Fort Worth, TX | TV: ESPNU | Series: Nebraska leads 7-2 | Game Line: TCU -3.5

The TCU Horned Frogs (21-13) survived the first round of the NIT, and now welcome the Nebraska Cornhuskers (19-16) into town for the second round. The Frogs were able to overcome a slow start against Sam Houston State and eventually cruise to a 82-69 victory. JD Miller led the Frogs in scoring with 15 points, while Alex Robinson had a double double with 13 points and 11 assists. Also in double figures were Desmond Bane (13), RJ Nembhard (12), Kevin Samuel (11), and Kendric Davis (10).

The Huskers held off Butler in their first round matchup, besting the Bulldogs 80-76. Running a six man rotation, Isaiah Roby (28 points), James Palmer (23), and Glynn Watson (17) were all able to have huge games. Nebraska had a rough go of it in one of the hardest conferences in college basketball, mustering a 6-14 record in conference. Their last true road win came against Indiana on January 14, their last win before suffering a 7 game losing streak that lasted nearly a month. They sport a few impressive wins over tournament teams such as Minnesota, Iowa, Maryland, and Seton Hall. They also beat Clemson on the road and avoided any truly terrible losses (the worst being one of their road losses to Rutgers or Illinois).

Like TCU, Nebraska has suffered an awful amount of attrition. An injury to Isaac Copeland really put a damper on a reasonably strong start to the season. They will get Brady Heiman back for this game, but guard Thomas Allen is active for “emergencies only”. A major reason for the Huskers’ struggle in conference was a complete collapse of their defense: on the season, their d-rating is 98.0 (64th), but in conference it spiked to a dreadful 109.5 (14th in conference, would be 267th overall). They are pretty rough on the boards, leading to lots of second chances in the paint. The 6th toughest schedule in the nation per KenPom bears mentioning, but it’s fair to say that Nebraska was trying to punch way above their weight class in the Big 10. Offensively, the Huskers are one of the most disciplined teams in the nation, as their low turnover rate is 7th best in the nation. They don’t shoot or score particularly well, but they maximize their number of possessions. If their defense can hold up like it did in non-con, they can look more like the 11-2 team that started the year. If not, it can be a long night for Big Red.

Projected Starting Five

#0 James Palmer (Senior from Upper Marlboro, MD)

2018-19 Stats: 19.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.0 APG, 37/31/76 shooting splits

Palmer is one of the most talented players in the Big 10; he was a first team all conference selection a season ago. He was forced to carry a much bigger load on offense this season than I’m sure he expected due to injuries, and as such the one time Miami Hurricane’s efficiency tanked this season. His true shooting dropped from 55.4% to 50.2%, largely because he was ineffective finishing at the rim (only 41% from two). On the bright side for Palmer: he was still incredible at getting to the line (2nd in Big 10 in FD/40) and made 76% of his shots from the stripe. He’s too talented to write off, as he can go off any given game, and he has been incredible since the Michigan State game in terms of scoring the basketball. When he gets in a rhythm and gets to the line, there are few better players in all of college basketball. The Frogs will need to pull a John Mulaney and throw Palmer off his rhythm, and hope that his occasional inefficiency rears its ugly head.

#5 Glynn Watson (Senior from Bellwood, IL)

2018-19 Stats: 13.5 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 42/39/81 shooting splits

Watson is a four year starter at point guard, and with that comes a lot of leadership and a certain steadiness (as Frog fans know from watching A Rob). Watson is the team’s top three point shooter at 39%, a welcome return to form after only hitting 29% from distance his junior season. The assist to turnover ratio isn’t great for a point guard, a problem for him since his freshman year, so don’t expect freakish assist numbers from the veteran guard. He has been hot this month, playing 40+ minutes in all of his last five games and scoring right around 20 points a contest. This has largely been due to his hot shooting from deep, something the Frogs will need to counteract in order to win this game. Watson is talented and experienced, but a solid defensive effort should be able to limit his effectiveness.

#15 Isaiah Roby (Junior from Dixon, IL)

2018-19 Stats: 12.1 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 45/33/68 shooting splits

A former four star recruit, Roby is a fan favorite of Nebrasketball fans thanks to his athletic, high flying game. Like Palmer and Watson, he’s having a hot month of March, showcasing an aggressiveness that wasn’t present earlier in the season. Known for his highlight dunks and emphatic rejections, Roby is also by far the Huskers’ most effective man on the glass. It’ll be a fun matchup to see JD Miller and Kouat Noi go up against Roby, as he profiles like a bigger Agbaji from Kansas. He has a tendency to get in foul trouble, and his low offensive rating during individually great performances may suggest that he doesn’t play a “winning brand” of basketball. Still, from a single player analysis perspective, he’s incredibly skilled and a real threat thanks to his athleticism and perfect fit in the modern game.

#20 Tanner Borchardt (Senior from Gothenburg, NE)

2018-19 Stats: 2.9 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 0.4 APG, 58/0/59 shooting splits

Borchardt is the man in the middle for the Huskers, and if you can’t tell from his statline, his job is to grab boards. Like many low usage big men, Borchardt sports a stellar offensive rating, 52nd best in the nation to be exact, but this is more indicative of how the team plays around him rather than his own abilities. He’s scored in double figures just once this season against Illinois, when he also pulled down a ridiculous 18 boards. He’ll likely continue to clean up the offensive glass, hopefully Kevin Samuel can put the clamps down on that. It would seem unlikely that Borchardt would have a big game on Sunday, but considering TCU’s history, they better take him seriously as an option on drop off passes for easy dunks.

#34 Thorir Thorbjarnarson (Sophomore from Reykjavik, Iceland)

2018-19 Stats: 1.8 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 1.1 APG, 33/14/70 shooting splits

Thorbjarnarson, in contention for the best name of anyone I’ve previewed, has been inserted into the starting five thanks to the attrition elsewhere on the team. He hasn’t done a ton on the offensive end to inspire confidence, but he has been a solid piece for the Huskers’ defense. He has 9 steals in his last 3 games, and puts in solid effort for all 40 minutes on the court. Expect maybe 4 or 5 shots to go up by the Icelandic sophomore, and at least 5 minutes on the TV broadcast dedicated to Adrian Branch struggling through his name.

Projected Reserves

#45 Brady Heiman (Freshman from Springfield, NE)

2018-19 Stats: 1.9 PPG, 1.8 RPG, 0.1 APG, 60/0/29 shooting splits

Heiman returns from a back injury to give the Huskers some much needed depth. He has shown promise as a shot blocker, though his free throw shooting will need much improvement if he ever hopes to stay on the floor in a late game situation. Coach Miles will take whatever healthy bodies he can get, and Heiman’s return at the bare minimum gives some other players on the team some time to rest.

#4 Johnny Trueblood (Senior from Omaha, NE)

2018-19 Stats: 1.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 43/14/36 shooting splits

Trueblood is a walk-on who spent most of his season parked to the end of the bench. To his credit, when called upon he has stepped up and logged major minutes for a power conference team. He’s coming off a string of solid if unspectacular games, which is all you can really ask for out of a walk-on. He should play a bit less with the return of Heiman as a second reserve, but Trueblood should once again get a chance to log heavy minutes in the final postseason of his career.

Three Things to Look For

Noi/Miller v. Roby

Few straight up matchups have intrigued me more than this one. I think Roby is a fascinating player. While Palmer was built for the AI/Kobe era, Roby is essentially the perfect stretch four if his jump shot can become more consistent. Similarly, Noi has been one of the best players in the Big 12 when healthy, and JD Miller is playing the best basketball of his career. The winner of this head to head will likely win the game at large, but at the bare minimum it will be fun to see three skilled players battle for 40 minutes.

Nebrasketball hits the road

As I mentioned above, the Huskers haven’t won a true road game since January. For the most part they haven’t just lost, they’ve been annihilated. Lost by 15 against Michigan State, 29 to Michigan, 24 to Penn State, etc. A big part of this is that Nebraska’s defense seems to spring leaks on the road. The Frogs haven’t had the greatest home court advantage this season, but they may get a much needed boost thanks to the Huskers’ road woes.

Pace of play

Nebraska loves to slow it down and play at their own pace. The Frogs should try and speed things up a bit and get the Huskers playing frantic and not in their usual style. That being said, the Frogs can’t afford to tire out at the end of the game like they have many times over the past month. It seems like the team got stronger as the game went along against SHSU, so a similar strategy in terms of load management should be implemented here.

Prediction

Nebraska has a good team, much better than their record at least. They have a lot of attrition, but the same can be said of the Frogs. All things being equal, this could be one of the toughest matchups the Frogs see all NIT. That being said, I think the grind of the Big 12 has put the Frogs up against steeper odds, and the three headed dragon of Palmer/Watson/Roby won’t be enough against a more balanced TCU squad. It won’t be easy, certainly SHSU proved that, but the Frogs should have enough in the tank to take this one.

Prediction: TCU 75, Nebraska 70

Here are the game notes, courtesy of GoFrogs.com:

  • TCU will host Nebraska Sunday at 8:30 p.m. in the second round of the NIT.
  • TCU is 15-6 all-time in the NIT and won the tournament during its last appearance in 2017. It was the Frogs’ first postseason tournament championship.
  • It’s the second time in school history that TCU is playing in a postseason tournament for third-straight seasons and the first time since 1999.
  • Desmond Bane (2nd Team), Alex Robinson (3rd Team) and Kouat Noi (Honorable Mention) were named All-Big 12. Bane and Robinson were also named All-Big 12 by the Associated Press.
  • Alex Robinson ranks sixth in the nation at 7.1 assists per game. He is TCU’s all-time assist leader at 659 and ranks No. 2 nationally with 743 total career assists when including his freshman season at Texas A&M. Robinson along with Owen Aschieris were named Academic All-Big 12 this season.
  • Desmond Bane (18th), Alex Robinson (20th) and JD Miller (24th) have each gone over 1,000 career points and rank in the top 25 in school history in points scored.
  • Kevin Samuel’s 67.6 percent shooting ranks second in the Big 12 and his 2.1 blocks per game ranks fourth in the conference. His 70 blocked are the fourth-most in a season at TCU, the most ever by a freshman.
  • The Horned Frogs rank 19th in the nation with 16.3 assists per game. For the third-straight year, TCU is leading the Big 12 in assists.
  • TCU’s roster consists of just 11 players, six who are freshmen or redshirt freshmen. The Frogs have played seven guys eight of their last nine games.