Nebraska’s magical run in the Big Ten tournament came to an end Friday with a 66-62 loss in the quarterfinals to No. 4 seed Wisconsin. The loss dropped the Huskers to 18-16 on the season and, barring an unlikely NIT bid, ended head coach Tim Miles’ seventh season in Lincoln.
Here are three takes from the game.
Commitment to Defense
This was just an absolutely phenomenal defensive effort from Nebraska.
Not good, not just great. They were so good on that end of the floor. Nebraska faced two first-team All-Big Ten players in Bruno Fernando and then Ethan Happ. Fernando was held to three points on 1-for-4 shooting. Then Happ on Friday was completely taken out of the game. Nebraska sent doubles constantly and looked to cloud his airspace. He had four points on four shots and seven turnovers in 20 minutes.
In three games in Chicago, Nebraska forced 50 turnovers. It began with 22 against Rutgers, then turned Maryland over 11 times Thursday, then turned Wisconsin — a team that averages less than 10 a game — over 17 times.
They held two of their three opponents under a point per possession, and Wisconsin finished at 1.04 only because they shot lights-out against tremendous defense in the first half (57 percent in the first 20 minutes, dropped to 40 percent in the last 20).
Thorir Thorbjarnarson was great once again in on-ball defense. Johnny Trueblood was the only Husker who wasn’t a negative on the court by plus/minus. Tanner Borchardt was stout again. Nebraska, despite playing its third game in as many days, exerted more energy on its defensive side of the floor than Wisconsin did on its side despite playing its first game of the week.
All five guys played on a string in ways the Huskers just haven’t done enough throughout the season. It was another fantastic gameplan from the coaching staff, and more great execution from the players.
Nebraska was in this because of its defense.
The Legs Were Gone
But Nebraska lost this because of shot-making.
Both senior guards, Glynn Watson Jr. and James Palmer Jr. played all 120 available minutes during the three games. Isaiah Roby came close to doing the same. In this game, only six Huskers played.
And the legs, in the second half, suffered because of it.
Nebraska shot 33 percent in the final 20 minutes. Palmer had 15 points on 21 shots after dazzling the first two days. He missed six of his seven triples. Watson had 23 points (an impressive 23 points) but needed 21 shots to get there. As a team, the Huskers hit just 10 of their 36 jumpers (by my count) and missed their final seven. Eight of those misses were off the front of the rim and two of them missed the hoop completely.
This had the potential of becoming an issue, and unfortunately, it was. When Wisconsin splashed a triple with 58 seconds left, it seemed like the dagger. Nebraska couldn’t respond and the Badgers closed it out with free throws.
Time for a Change
Now that the season seems finished, here’s the take that probably matters the most.
It’s time to go a different direction.
The Iowa win was exhilarating. But it’s not justification to keep the head coach. Remember, Nebraska needed 16 points in 47 seconds to force overtime in that one. That was like 38 minutes of bad basketball undone by shot-making in the crunchiest of crunch time. That’s an outlier, not something you can hang your hat on.
Rutgers was a bad team that turned it over 22 times. They were playing in the first game of the Big Ten Tournament, too, mind you.
Maryland was a feel-good moment. But when the Cinderella story stops and the clock hits midnight, that’s all it will likely be remembered as.
These three games are most likely a footnote. Appreciate these seniors. Appreciate this fight in a dire situation. Celebrate these seven kids changing the narrative about their heart and will to win over the final three games. They made Nebraskans everywhere proud and that shouldn’t be forgotten. But know those seniors fighting so hard for their careers not to end won’t change the trajectory of this program moving forward.
Nebraska, under Miles, was 112-112 in seven seasons leading up to this three-game run. That featured one NCAA Tournament appearance, no wins, and four losing seasons.
This season as a whole has been an abject failure. Nebraska, I thought, was good enough to make the Big Dance on the strength of its starting five alone. I’m as bullish as any on Isaac Copeland’s value and importance to this group, but losing him shouldn’t have tanked the season. They started this thing with 11 wins in 13 games. That was followed up with 13 loss in 17 games. That also can’t be forgotten. Because the same problems that plagued teams of the past plagued this year’s team.
While the head coach in Lincoln, Miles has never fielded an offense that finished with a top-100 offensive rating. Three times the Huskers have been outside the top-250. The offense is bland. It’s reliant on shot-makers making tough shots. When James Palmer Jr. makes shots, like he has over the last five or so games, things look fine, but when the lead scorer goes, say, 3-for-15 in a game, the offense goes with him and shoots something like, say, 34 percent. (That was the 29-point loss to Michigan on Feb. 28.)
Nebraska doesn’t have depth because those that are here are either young and raw or underdeveloped and those that aren’t around still form a list that’s frankly too long. Roster construction could prove to be the greater downfall; relying so heavily on the transfer market is volatile.
Applaud the fight. This team deserves it. But it’s time for a new leading man on the bench.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.