Already facing severe depth issues with his roster, Nebraska head coach Tim Miles had to reach even deeper into his bag of tricks on Sunday with two of his biggest contributors out with injuries.
What happened as a result in the Huskers' 66-56 loss to No. 22 Michigan State, though, gave some definite reasons for optimism.
With senior forward Brandon Ubel (elbow) and junior point guard Mike Peltz (knee) on the bench, Miles turned to a young and guard-heavy lineup against the Spartans, and NU ended up scoring its highest total so far in Big Ten play and nearly pulling off an improbable upset.
In particular, the Huskers leaned heavily on a pair of underclassmen to carry bulk of the load inside. Sophomore guard/forward David Rivers and freshman guard Shavon Shields both got the start and played 40 and 38 minutes, respectively, and combined for 27 points on 12-of-16 shooting.
Senior center Andre Almeida joined Dylan Talley and Ray Gallegos to fill out the starting five, but Almeida played just 24 minutes after shooting 0-for-4 with three turnovers before fouling out in the second half.
During Monday's weekly Big Ten coaches' teleconference, Miles said even though he used the lineup of Rivers, Shields, Talley, Gallegos and Almeida primarily out of necessity, it was one he would certainly turn to often moving forward, especially with Ubel out.
"We've tried to get (that lineup) on the floor as much as we could at different times," Miles said. "I think David Rivers probably got more time, but he earned more time. I thought it was a fairly productive lineup for us."
Oddly enough, Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo made the comment that he thought Nebraska was even better defensively without Ubel on the floor because of the increased quickness and athleticism Shields and Rivers provided in the low post.
"I'll be honest with you, what gave us a problem was - I think Ubel is a heck of a player and I don't want to slight that - but they become better defensively (without him) because they're so much quicker," Izzo said. "The guys against us, Shields and Rivers, went 12-for-16, and they were both averaging like four points a game. They really played well against us."
While Miles said he was pleased with the way his team responded without having their emotional leader on the court with them, he would much rather get Ubel back as soon as possible.
"We did play one lineup that we've never played before with Shavon, David and three perimeters, so to speak," Miles said. "I'd still prefer to have Brandon in the game. I think Shavon played really well early and David played really well throughout the first 34 minutes of the game too, and I think that really helped. At one time I think they were like 9-for-12 shooting, so I think you put Brandon in that mix and they can still shoot like that, I think we'll be OK."
As better as the Huskers' may have been on Sunday, the fact remains that they weren't good enough to keep from falling to 0-4 in conference play. However, with the way his young players like Shields and Rivers have continued to show improvement with each game they play, Miles said he couldn't help but feel good about what may be in store in the years to come.
"Those two guys have done a great job," Miles said. "David was fantastic against Michigan State. I was really impressed with him. We put him in some tough situations defensively. I know we had him guarding (6-9, 270 center Derrick Nix) at times, and that's tough to ask of a slender guy like him. Also Shavon, you look at it, we turned to him two plays late in the game right there where it's a one possession game, and he gets free on one back cut and then we almost had the second one that was turnover, and was probably a numbskull call by me putting him in a tough spot.
"But you talk about trust, we're putting them in those positions because I do trust those guys, and I've been impressed that they've come along and keep getting better. I like their attitudes."
Around the rim
***Miles had no update on what Ubel's status would be for Wednesday's home game against Purdue and beyond. Ubel continues to rehab from a fractured elbow he suffered in last week's loss at Michigan.
"Nope, I don't know anything yet, and we probably won't know until closer to Wednesday," Miles said. "Ask me Wednesday, or Tuesday. Try Tuesday after practice."
***Looking back, Izzo said Nebraska was undoubtedly the aggressor on Sunday night, and his team was lucky to get out of the game with the win.
"I thought they were a team that played harder than we did most of that game," Izzo said. "They shot better, and we did not shoot the ball well, especially our guard play."
***Izzo also praised the job Miles and his staff have done in their first season in Lincoln, especially given the tough circumstances they've faced in rebuilding the program.
"I think Tim's done an incredible job there already," Izzo said. "Even at the beginning of the year, they've always been good defensively this whole season. They've struggled to put the ball in the hole at times, but if they ever get the Gallegos kid where he's shooting at a higher percentage, this is going to be a serious team. I think Talley's improved a lot, and I think Tim has done a great job. I enjoyed watching them early when I watched them, and I've enjoyed watching them in the Big Ten.
"It's a team that hasn't won a conference game and is at the bottom of the conference standings, but I don't think anyone wants to play them either place, home or away. They gave Wisconsin a heck of a game, and they're going to be a tough team to play on certain nights, I can promise you that."
***Purdue coach Matt Painter said he's been very impressed with Nebraska's play defensively this season. He said keeping the Huskers' momentum in check at home and not giving up any easy baskets in transition would be the biggest keys for the Boilermakers on Wednesday night.
"Obviously they only have a couple guys that were there last year, and now the big fella (Ubel) looks like he'll be out also," Painter said. "So they have a new team. Obviously they have more perimeter guys than they do interior, so they play small.
"Just trying to figure out here over the next couple days to not let their perimeter guys get going and let them steal points at home, because I think that's what we all try to do when get at home, is try to push the tempo a little bit and steal some points in transition… Just try our best to not let those shooters get in rhythm and get going and then try to keep them in front of us."