LINCOLN — Adequate words to describe Nebraska's defensive performance in the first half of the season are hard to find, though Walter Pitchford on Saturday came up with three.
“We were bad,” the sophomore forward said.
Massachusetts racked up 96 points. UAB shot 82.6 percent (19 of 23) the second half. Creighton scored 38 points in the first 13 minutes. Ohio State shot 54 percent, which Michigan topped in the next game at 62 percent.
Lately, however, other words about NU's defense come to mind.
Good. Really good.
Nebraska (15-10, 7-6) enters Sunday's sold-out home game against Purdue having held the past nine opponents to a combined 40 percent shooting, and the past four to 37 percent or less.
More important, coach Tim Miles said Saturday, the Huskers have climbed from 11th in the Big Ten to fifth in defensive points per possession, his best indicator of true defense.
Nebraska's 7-2 record in the time the defense improved is no coincidence — just as being 8-8 on Jan. 12 was no fluke.
“It's completely different,” said sophomore co-captain Shavon Shields, citing attitude and togetherness. “Everybody in and out of the program sees it.
“Getting stops, owning the paint and priding ourselves on defense have brought us success. With that, we bought into what we need to do in order to win.”
But Purdue (15-11, 5-8) will bring a different defensive challenge to Pinnacle Bank Arena in 7-foot, 251-pound A.J. Hammons.
The sophomore's averages aren't dazzling: 10.5 points, 7.2 rebounds. It's what he might do that is worrisome, especially against a team lacking a true big man like Nebraska.
“He's a guy who can give you 24 and 18 any night,” Shields said. “We need to keep him off the boards, not let him get going and keep him uncomfortable, because he is a huge part of their team.”
Nebraska's lineup won't be as small as perhaps feared after Thursday's win over Penn State.
The 6-10 Pitchford suffered a bruised knee that knocked him out of that game. But he practiced full speed for 25 minutes Saturday and then rode an exercise bike before adding some shooting.
“He looked good,” Miles said. “I expect him to play.”
Just in case Pitchford is limited, the Huskers worked 6-7, 198-pound David Rivers some at center as a backup to 6-8, 250-pound Leslee Smith in preparation for Hammons.
“He's a huge player,” Rivers said. “It's easy for a guy like that to dominate the game.”
This season, Hammons has posted 18 points and 16 rebounds against Ohio State, 18 and 12 against Penn State and 20 and 14 against Minnesota. Earlier this season in a 70-64 win over Nebraska, he had 18 and three.
Miles noted Hammons' impact on the first game defensively, too.
“We missed seven layups last time and he blocked four shots,” Miles said. “On those seven misses, he altered four of them. So he has a real defensive presence in the lane and at the rim.”