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January 28, 2013

Huskers gearing up for physical test vs. Minnesota

On paper, Nebraska's match-up with No. 23 Minnesota on Tuesday night in Minneapolis looks like an absolute nightmare for head coach Tim Miles.

Even though his Huskers are coming off their first Big Ten Conference home win of the season, they're still dead last in the league and 330th nationally in scoring at just 58.5 points per game. As if that weren't a big enough problem in itself, NU now must figure out how to put points on the board against one of the most physical and aggressive defenses in college basketball.

Minnesota comes into Tuesday's game ranked fifth nationally and second in the Big Ten with a 9.2 rebounding margin on the season, holding a 39.9 to 30.7 advantage on the glass over its opponents. In particular, the Golden Gophers have done the bulk of their damage with their offensive rebounding, leading the conference with 15.8 offensive boards per game and a nation-leading 46.9 offensive rebounding percentage as a team.

Oh yeah, Minnesota is also tops in the Big Ten with 6.3 blocks and 9.1 steals per game under head coach Tubby Smith. Needless to say, Miles certainly has reason to feel a bit uneasy about Nebraska's chances on the offensive end.

"I know their defense is always outstanding," Miles said during the weekly Big Ten coaches' teleconference on Monday. "They pressure. If they can set their press and extend on you off made baskets, it can really be hard to generate any offensive rhythm. Also, that defense will feed into their offense. Now (Smith's team) is also rebounding at a rate probably not like he has since he was at Kentucky with all that size and physicality he had some of those years."

"I think the best thing they do is their physicality and their ability to offensive rebound the ball, they're the best in the country," Miles added. "That's been something that's hurt us, and so that's going to be a huge key to the game for us."

The driving force behind the Gophers' domination in the post has been sixth-year senior forward Trevor Mbakwe. After missing nearly all of last season with a torn ACL, the 6-foot-8, 245-pound power forward leads the Big Ten with 8.7 rebounds per game, including a league-best 71 offensive boards.

He's also second in the conference in blocks with an average of 1.8 per contest, helping pace Minnesota to a staggering 126 blocks so far on the year, 27 more than second-place Purdue (99).

"He's just so physical in his mentality," senior forward Brandon Ubel said of Mbakwe. "He attacks the glass every time and is going after the ball. If you have that aggressive mentality and you go after the boards every possession, you're going to be a pretty good rebounder."

Mbakwe is far from the only defensive issue the Huskers must account for, as Rodney Williams (fifth, 1.5) and Elliott Eliason (ninth, 1.1) both rank in the league's top 10 in blocks. In the backcourt, guards Austin Hollins (second, 2.0), Joe Coleman (10th, 1.5) and Andre Hollins (14th, 1.3) all rank in the top-15 in steals per game.

"They are long and athletic at just about every position, so that just makes it tough on any team," Ubel said. "But if we go out and execute our stuff and move the ball and move people, that's how we can be successful on offense."

In terms of rebounding, Miles said he saw some improvement in Saturday's win over Northwestern compared to the debacle Nebraska had on the boards in its loss to Illinois last week.

After being out-rebounded by the Fighting Illini 40-28 overall and 14-10 on the offensive glass, the Huskers came back and led the Wildcats with a 43-34 rebounding edge and out-scored them 30-22 in the paint and 15-11 in second-chance points.

"I thought we were a little better," Miles said. "We still had some lapses, especially in the first half. It's got to be an every-minute mentality. We have guys out there that have to play with more physical force on defense for them to be a good Big Ten defense as a team, a more physical team.

"Physicality and the lack thereof is one of the things I was worried about coming into this season. I was surprised by our lack of it, and we need to continue to improve in that capacity. We've got all kinds of teams that can just absolutely brutalize you on the boards (in the Big Ten). Illinois did it the other night, and Minnesota will if we're not prepared to play that way mentally."

Despite Minnesota's strong play defensively, it comes in limping a bit for its showdown with the Huskers. The Gophers, who were ranked ninth in the country two weeks ago, are currently on a four-game losing streak and have been held to less than 50 points in their last two losses, including a 45-44 defeat at Wisconsin on Saturday.

At just 2-6 in the Big Ten themselves, though, Miles said the Huskers are in no position to take anyone lightly.

"You hope to come into town, and they are going to be motivated," Miles said. "They're tired of talking about it, hearing about it, so we know how big of challenge it's going to be. They're going to play with a lot of fire in their eyes. We just have to execute our game plan regardless of the circumstance."


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