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February 15, 2014

NU prepping for toughest road test yet vs Spartans

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Yes, Nebraska recently put an end to its year-long road losing streak with a win at Northwestern. But that doesn't mean the Huskers think they've fully solved their woes away from Pinnacle Bank Arena by any means.

That's especially true given that NU's next road trip on Sunday will be up to East Lansing, Mich., to take on No. 9 Michigan State at the notorious Breslin Center, arguably one of the best home-court advantages in the Big Ten Conference. Along with the regular stressing of maintaining composure, especially when things start to go their opponent's way, head coach Tim Miles and his staff have tried some different tactics to help prepare their team for one of the most hostile road environments it will see all season.

One of those strategies was blasting loud music through the top-of-the-line speakers at the Hendricks Center practice facility during Thursday's final tuneup before flying up East Lansing.

"We played music today just to make them have to communicate," Miles said. "It wasn't anything I could understand, but it was music, I guess."

While playing music isn't a new idea for the Huskers, how well the players handled themselves amid the noise was apparently a big step up from how they did earlier in the season.

"We've done it before just so we can be able to communicate," sophomore forward Walter Pitchford said. "We know it's going to get really loud in there, and you're probably not going to be able to hear your teammates. So you just practice it… We're a lot better now. We're communicating, and even if we can't hear, people are looking and having their head on a swivel and just knowing where to be and when."

Nebraska will need to be at the top of its game for all 40 minutes against the Big Ten-leading Spartans, who have emerged as one of the most physical and talented teams in the country despite dealing with a number of big injury setbacks. Michigan State will be without two key players on Sunday in guard Keith Appling and forward Branden Dawson, but it recently got back a potential NBA lottery pick in senior center Adreian Payne, who missed seven games with a sprained foot.

Since his return on Feb. 6, the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Payne is averaging nearly 20 points over his past three games.

"It gives them a whole new dimension, because he can hurt you in any way possible," Miles said. "He's a shot blocker, a big time defensive rebounder, he can score in the block, he can make threes, he can drive. He's a pretty versatile guy."

That being said, the Huskers are eager for maybe the most daunting challenge remaining on their regular-season schedule.

"I accept all challenges, really," Pitchford said. "(Payne)'s a great player, but not to cop out, but it's everybody guarding each player. That's defense, and that's how you win. That's how we're going to approach it."

Around the rim

***Miles said Nebraska's defense has definitely improved over the past month, and a big part of that actually had to do with how it's improved offensively in terms of having better ball security and being more efficient with its shot selection. However, Miles said the Huskers would be put to the test on Sunday against Michigan State's "raid" defense that forces turnovers and flusters opposing offenses.

"Michigan State raids and they create offense better than anybody, so this will be a real test for us to make sure those things play off each other," Miles said. "There's nothing like the sport of basketball. We don't have a goalie, you know? Other transition sports like soccer or hockey, they've got somebody standing there to protect the goal. We don't. So it's paramount that we understand how to go from offense to defense and that one goes into the other more than any other sport there is."

***Seeing how well sophomore point guard Benny Parker has played the past two games and how much freshman point guard Tai Webster has struggled of late, Miles said he briefly contemplated shaking up his starting lineup. But Miles said he planned to keep things the way they were and keep Webster as the starter while having Parker come off the bench.

"I've considered everything," Miles said. "At the same time, I really like Benny's spark off the bench and his energy level. We usually start out the first four minutes with that group OK. I like them out there. We don't always score, but I like that group. Then I like it when Benny comes in and gives us a burst of energy. So at this point, I kind of like him coming off the bench."

***Another player who has struggled lately is junior forward Leslee Smith. Miles said Smith has actually been playing really well in practice, and it shouldn't be long before he starts producing the same way in games as he did early in the season.

"He's been practicing better and better," Miles said. "He's had really 10 days of very good practice. We haven't seen it in a game yet. He's struggling a little bit, but at the same time, I always say good practices are going to allow you to play well, and so I think it's just a matter of time for him to bounce back. We're probably going to need him against these guys."

***Miles was out in Oklahoma on Thursday night watching 2014 commit Jacob Hammond in action. It certainly wasn't Hammond's best night, as he finished with 19 points (below his season average) but shot just 9-of-19 from the free throw line before being forced to the bench because of early foul trouble.

"He did some good things," Miles said. "He plays physical. He's got long, good length, and he rebounded the ball well. He still needs strength and needs to polish up his post moves and interior game, but he rebounds really well. I think he had 23 and 18 the next night after we left. We've got to get him making his foul shots, though. We'll work on that. That'll be a piece of cake."


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