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The Journal Gazette

Tuesday, February 20, 2018 6:40 pm

Pregame: Indiana at Nebraska

DYLAN SINN | The Journal Gazette

Indiana hasn't won five games in a row since the beginning of last season, but it will have an opportunity to do just that against Nebraska tonight. This is a huge step up in competition for the Hoosiers, who have built this winning streak on beating the weakest teams in the Big Ten.

That does not mean the gains Indiana has made over the last several weeks aren't real. In fact, one could argue the Hoosiers are the most improved team in the Big Ten since this season began (I would hazard a guess that they would not lose to Indiana State if the teams played today). Indiana was actually showing improvement even before this winning streak began. Remember, it hung with both Purdue and Michigan State at home, taking a legitimate shot to win into the final minutes of each game. Even at Ohio State, when the Hoosiers lost 71-56, they played the Buckeyes essentially even after falling behind 29-12 in the early going.

Tonight will be a different test, however. Nebraska is a bubble team, the first such group Indiana has faced since it beat a Maryland team decimated by injuries in Bloomington almost a month ago. Nebraska is a desperate group after losing to Illinois on Sunday; it can't afford another loss to a middling team, which, late-season improvement aside, Indiana is this season.

The Cornhuskers have the advantage of playing at home, where they are nearly unbeatable this year. They thumped then-No. 23 Michigan at Pinnacle Bank Arena by 20 points in mid-January and haven't lost there since a 73-72 defeat against Kansas on Dec. 16. A desperate team playing in a favorable environment is a test Indiana has not faced this season.

It helps the Hoosiers' chances that Nebraska will probably not hit its first 10 shots, as Iowa did Saturday. The Cornhuskers rank 11th in the Big Ten, hitting just 43 percent of their shots from the field and none of their top three scorers hit more than 48 percent from the field or 37 percent from beyond the arc. If the Hoosiers can defend the perimeter the way they did against Rutgers, Minnesota, and Illinois, and keep the Cornhusker guards from getting to the rim, they could make life very difficult for Nebraska's stars.

What I'm watching for: How many jump shots is Glynn Watson Jr. taking? Watson is Nebraska's third-leading scorer, but he's a poor jump-shooter. He shoots only 34 percent from the field and 28 percent from beyond the 3-point line, but takes more than 10 shots per game and has a tendency to try to force the issue. If Indiana can turn him into a jump shooter and force him into ill-advised shots, it will essentially be forcing turnovers (provided the Hoosiers grab the long rebounds, something they struggled with against Iowa). Empty possessions pile up and Nebraska can ill-afford to give trips down the floor away with Indiana firing on all cylinders on offense.

Prediction: Nebraska 74, Indiana 70

dsinn@jg.net