The 24th-ranked Huskers (11-4, 1-3 Big Ten) dropped another one.
Another back-and-forth game, another road game, another game Nebraska needed, another close loss. The 25th-ranked Iowa Hawkeyes (12-3, 1-3 Big Ten) dropped the Huskers Sunday in Iowa City, 93-84.
Here are three takeaways from the game.
It might not be time to panic yet, but it’s certainly time to worry.
Nebraska has now lost two in a row for the first time this season. It has been outrebounded in both and given up double-digit offensive boards in both (Iowa had 18 second-chance points… 18!). It has dropped three of its first four conference games, all coming on the road. But maybe worse than anything else, Iowa showcased what could be the perfect blueprint for breaking the Huskers.
In the first half, Iowa created the perfect storm. Big men Luka Garza, Tyler Cooke and Ryan Kriener got the ball early and often inside — combining for 27 first-half points — and put Nebraska’s bigs on the pine with foul trouble. Isaac Copeland played 10 minutes with two fouls in the first half, Isaiah Roby played 11 with two as well. Tanner Borchardt, the Huskers’ backup and only true center, played seven with three fouls.
Head coach Tim Miles was forced to go uber-small with freshman Brady Heiman at the center spot and sophomore wing Nana Akenten at the four. Heiman has shown flashes of his potential this season, but he’s also shown he’s not anywhere near ready for a significant role. He’s also a net-zero on the offensive end.
So Iowa went to a 2-3 zone with some three-quarters court pressure and Nebraska had no interior presence to try and take advantage of it. The Huskers just started throwing the ball around on the perimeter offensively and Iowa pressed up outside the 3-point line. Nebraska looked like it had never seen pressure before.
And when the second half began, Iowa went right back to the paint knowing the Husker bigs would be cognizant of their foul trouble. Spoiler: they were. Guards drove to a bucket with no shot-blocker in the way and bigs set up shop in the low post.
Nebraska doesn’t have anywhere near the frontcourt depth necessary to survive foul trouble on one of its bigs, let alone three of them. And if you can get the bigs off the floor, the offense will struggle just as much as the defense. Nebraska ran fewer pick-and-rolls against the Hawkeyes than they have in a long time and it messed with the flow.
The Big Ten is littered with quality big guys. Maybe not everyone can use the 2-3 zone to go at the Huskers the same way Iowa did, but pretty much every other team the Huskers will face will have talented big guys who can take advantage of undisciplined play inside.
A Not-So-Fun Numbers Game
Another major bummer that comes with foul trouble on Copeland and Roby? They’re both pretty good at playing basketball. Copeland went for 24 points, six boards and two assists on 50 percent shooting. Roby had 17 points and nine boards on 8-for-10 shooting and 23 minutes of turnover-free basketball.
They were it in terms of reliable, efficient offense.
Nebraska’s starting backcourt — Glynn Watson Jr., Thomas Allen Jr. and James Palmer Jr. — went a combined 12-for-33 shooting and turned it over seven times. Palmer had 20 points but took 15 shots to get there and turned it over five times. And it took him 18 minutes of game clock to get his first two points.
Allen was fine but more unimpactful than anything else.
Watson reverted back to the same career-worst shooter he was last season, taking ill-advised, contested jumpers and opting for fallaways in the lane rather than attacking the rim. He gambled on defense a few times in crucial moments, too.
Still, the trio had 36 points combined. In most instances, you’re fine with that. You’re especially fine with Palmer’s 20. But Nebraska relies so, so, so heavily on its starters to produce offense that any kind of slippage creates major problems.
If the main guys are off, as they were Sunday (Nebraska went 4-for-23 from 3, a season-low for makes and percentage), the pressure on select guys to score becomes too much. The bench took six shots. Akenten was the only guy to score a point from the second unit. Borchardt played 13 minutes, took no shots, grabbed no rebounds and finished a minus-two. Heiman played nine minutes of scoreless, rebound-less basketball as well.
Nebraska either needs more scoring from its second unit as currently constructed (not likely given the makeup) or Miles needs to throw caution to the wind and deepen the rotation (also not likely given his track record). Nebraska had two 20-point scorers and it wasn’t enough.
Miles said a few weeks ago he doesn’t ever want to “expect” scoring binges from Palmer, but that’s exactly how the Huskers play. They need Palmer to be big and they need the other four starters to all be on their game at the same time. When that formula is off, Iowa happens. And I don’t really say a route to fixing that approach.
Poor Time to Fall Apart, Defense
Nebraska is a good defensive team. That much I know. The Huskers have been a top-10 defensive outfit for the entire season. So what do we make of Sunday’s road showing?
How do you explain this?
nebraska is a really good defensive team.
you just wouldn't know it if this was the first time you've watched them. pic.twitter.com/uMYdG4o5zJ
— Derek Peterson (@DrPeteyHV) January 7, 2019
When things aren’t working offensively, that kind of effort and communication on defense is inexplicable. The Huskers have been a team that has relied on defense creating offense all season. Against the Hawkeyes, they played like the clip above more often than not, almost indifferent.
Nebraska created momentum to close the first half by cutting what was once a seven-point game to just one with 3.2 seconds to play, then Iowa guard Jordan Bohannon banked in a floater triple at the buzzer because no one in a red jersey decided to stop the ball in transition.
You call "bank!" @JordanBo_3?
— Big Ten Network (@BigTenNetwork) January 6, 2019
The Hawkeyes had 29 fastbreak points. Finding the ball in transition was an issue all night and that’s nothing more than simple defensive communication.
Then there was the 3-point shooting. Iowa took a bunch (22), made a bunch (10) and snuffed out Nebraska runs with the deep ball. Most were either wide open or facing late close-outs. Nebraska entered the day eighth in the country in 3-point defense, holding opponents to 27 percent. Iowa shooting 45 percent then is cause for concern.
Again, do you panic now? Probably not, but a total defensive collapse was an issue against Minnesota as well. The cracks in the foundation are a little more visible. I wrote after Wednesday’s loss to Maryland that the Huskers couldn’t afford to let one not-so-bad loss snowball. Well, now we’re up to two losses with the most recent looking pretty bad.
Penn State at home on Thursday could potentially save things or break the season. Tip is at 8 p.m. CT.
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.