The Michigan men’s basketball team dodged a bullet Tuesday.
The Wolverines took Maryland’s best shot, stumbled to the brink of taking a heartbreaking loss but clumsily rebounded for an ugly win.
It was Michigan’s first game as a ranked team in the 2017-18 season, and the results weren’t all that convincing. It struggled to contain Terrapins guard Anthony Cowan Jr., struggled to make layups at times and struggled to put its foot on the opponent’s throat when the occasion called for it.
Still, the bullet was dodged.
Thursday, as is the nature of the Big Ten schedule, the Wolverines will face another potential bullet — this time in the form of Nebraska.
The Cornhuskers are a confusing team. Though they’ve lost to Central Florida and have been blown out by St. John’s, they also barely lost to then-No. 13 Kansas and beat then-No. 14 Minnesota on the road. Not to mention, coach Tim Miles’ squad has won six of its last eight games.
It’s a bit surprising that Nebraska has found any success at all this season. After four players transferred from the program last season, Miles had to pick up the pieces this offseason and try to fit the team back together. He got that in the form of some incoming transfers.
James Palmer Jr., transferred from Miami after the 2015-16 season, while Isaac Copeland came from Georgetown. All they’ve done so far is become the Cornhuskers’ two leading scorers, averaging 15.7 and 12.3 points per game, respectively.
Michigan coach John Beilein sees versatility in the Cornhuskers, and he compared the impact of Palmer to that of redshirt sophomore guard Charles Matthews.
“All their guys, I mean, Copeland’s been coming off the bench, he’s shooting, and Palmer, coming from Miami, he’s Charles Matthews, is who he is.” Beilein said. “He can pass the ball, he shoots the ball, he’s long, he’s athletic. He’s Charles Matthews.”
Even beyond Palmer’s abilities, Nebraska plays a similar style to the Wolverines. There are times when the Cornhuskers won’t have a traditional center on the floor — like Michigan when junior forward Moritz Wagner plays.
Of course, Nebraska does not have Wagner. Its starting center, Jordy Tshimanga, averages just 3.5 points per game and plays just over 15 minutes per game. After him, the next tallest player is 6-foot-9. It’s a rarity that the Wolverines have a size advantage of any kind, but Thursday that may be the case.
“The way they play, with essentially five guards at some times, is a challenge,” said fifth-year senior Duncan Robinson. “But hopefully we’ll be ready for the challenge.”
Against Maryland, Michigan showed some versatility of its own. At one point late in the game, Beilein took out sophomore point guard Zavier Simpson in favor of freshman guard Jordan Poole. The Wolverines didn’t have a traditional point guard on the floor, but Beilein emphasized that he wants to get Poole — a dynamic scorer — on the court as often as possible.
“We’re going to try to do everything we can to get Jordan more minutes,” Beilein said. “Especially if (Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman) is clicking and not in foul trouble, defensively he’s very good. Charles gives us a great slasher, a shooter, a playmaker. We don’t want him just sharing times at one position, so we’ve been trying to do that.”
No matter who the Wolveirnes throw out on the floor, they’ll have to contend with the atmosphere in Lincoln. Of course, Michigan has played in tough environments already this season, winning in East Lansing less than a week ago, but Nebraska’s home court is enough of a test for Beilein to call it one of the best environments in the Big Ten.
“Unbelievable place to play, I mean they pack it,” Robinson said. “We’ve had some success down there recently, but obviously, we’re gonna have to bring it tomorrow.”