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Northwestern vs. Nebraska Basketball Preview

by Chris Johnson (@ChrisDJohnsonn)

The hardest part about beating a really good team, as Northwestern did Wednesday night by toppling No. 12 Minnesota at home, is getting up for your next game. The emotional high of an a big win can do one of two things: 1) it can boost your confidence and lead to sustained winning or 2) it can obscure the task at hand and force you to overlook the next opponent. Option two is something we see all too often in this inherently unpredictable sport, and it’s especially dangerous when there’s a severe drop in competition level. Northwestern will need to ensure it doesn’t fall into that trap when it travels to Nebraska Saturday for a matchup with one of the Big Ten’s worst.

Three Players to Watch

Dylan Talley (senior, guard)

When Minnesota needs a bucket, it goes to Talley – He leads the Huskers both in usage rate (26.6) and percentage of team shot attempts (28.4). The only problem? Talley hasn’t been anywhere near as efficient as he needs to be. Balancing the high volume-efficiency tightrope is never easy, but Talley’s offensive rating (88.8) – which measures points produced per 100 possessions – is far too low for a player so central to Nebraska’s offensive attack.

The lack of secondary scoring options has functioned to put Talley at the fore of the Huskers’ offensive plans, and so far, he hasn’t made all the necessary adjustments. This is a textbook transition year for first-year coach Tim Miles. Until Miles can replenish the recruiting ranks and get the right players to fit his system, Nebraska will struggle to compete. Talley is merely the best offensive option of the cast of holdovers left in the wake of Doc Sadler’s offseason firing.

Brandon Ubel (senior, forward) 

In the early stages of Miles’ rebuilding process, this team has been playing some ugly basketball on both ends of the floor. Most of what the Huskers do – empirically and statistically – is not conducive to winning games. There are some exceptions. For one, Miles’ team turns it over on only 17.6 percent of possessions, which ranks 35th in the country and third in the Big Ten.

It also excels at keeping opponents off the offensive glass (though their opponents offensive rebounding percentage, 28.5, was at least partially goosed by early nonconference success and since dropped off in conference play), and no individual has been as pivotal in that facet of the game than Ubel, whose 17.1 defensive rebounding percentage is a team-high among players using at least 20 percent of available possessions. There is no understating the importance of preventing second-chance points, and Ubel – more than anyone else – helps ensure opposing teams aren’t gobble up their misses.

Ray Gallegos (junior, guard) 

It’s not often you see a college basketball player redshirting midway through his eligibility cycle. High major hoops teams, more than football ones, expect players to contribute upon arrival and play out their eligibility in a linear four-year progression. But after logging 30 games as a freshman and 25 as a sophomore, Gallegos elected to spend his junior year off the court to sharpen his offensive game and improve his physique. Gallegos’ decision paid off handsomely.

Not only does he lead his team in minutes played, Gallegos spends more time on the floor than all but five players in the country. His usage rates and shot percentage have hovered around 2011 levels, but Gallegos is being more efficient with his shot attempts, more judicious with the ball in his hands, developing better distributive skills and hitting the offensive glass more effectively. In sum, Gallegos spent a year away from the rigors of a 30-game hoops season and came away much better off because of it.

Key Matchup: Reggie Hearn vs. Dylan Talley

Keeping Talley in check will be Northwestern’s foremost priority on the defensive end. We talked above about Talley’s high usage and shot rates, and his correspondingly low efficiency marks, but that doesn’t discredit the fact he’s reached double figures in four of the last five games, including 16 points in the Huskers’ recent home loss to Illinois. Hearn is Northwestern’s most versatile one-on-one defender; he can guard practically every position except center.

Talley is an obvious match, and Hearn should be up to bat against Nebraska’s go-to offensive threat. Talley will get his touches – he hoards possessions and shot attempts more than any other teammate. The challenge is making sure those touches don’t turn into easy scores. So far this season, high usage has not translated into productive offensive work. Hearn will be a big part of prolonging that trend.