Nebraska’s 20-game home winning streak came to an end on Thursday with a 70-64 loss to No. 6 Michigan State, a game in which the Huskers shot a season-low 32.8 percent from the field. One of Coach Tim Miles’ talking points after the game was that he didn’t love his team’s shot selection, and that was backed up by the film review.
“After watching the Michigan State tape, what I saw was bad decisions,” Coach Tim Miles said. “First of all, we had some bad decisions in transition and certainly shot selection that hurt us. And then when we got open looks, we didn’t make a lot of them so we didn’t help ourselves out and Michigan State created a whole bunch of that too. They had guys step into plays, I thought. Certainly Cassius Winston was super. Aaron Henry made a big 3 in the second half. Every time it seemed like we were there, they answered. We could never just build on any lead and that’s just kind of the way it goes.”
Despite the offensive struggles, Nebraska managed to hang in against one of the best teams in the country, holding the Spartans to 43.6 percent from the field and 30 percent from 3-point range while forcing 15 turnovers.
“We held Michigan State to their second-lowest effective field goal percentage and second-lowest points per possession,” Miles said. “So defensively we were really solid against one of the elite teams in the country. Our guys, I think, have a great deal of confidence. I think they’re disappointed in some of the decisions that they made in terms of being a really good offensive team against an elite defensive team.”
Disappointment is the overriding emotion relayed by senior center Tanner Borchardt after Sunday’s practice. Had a couple more shots gone down, Nebraska could have taken down a top-10 team in Borchardt’s eyes.
“There’s always little things in games that you can be proud of, but I just think the overall tone of that Michigan State game is disappointment,” Borchardt said. “We held them to a certain percentage, we kept the game pretty low-scoring, rebounding we did well, but overall it was a loss so I think the whole tone was pretty disappointing.”
Even so, Miles said the Huskers had a good practice on Sunday and are ready to move on to their next opponent, a Rutgers team that is 8-9 on the season including 1-6 in the Big Ten.
“I think we’re ready for Rutgers,” Miles said. “The big thing is no hangover. You’ve got to get past the disappointment of a loss, a home loss, and get on to the next because in this league — we saw it with Penn State and Minnesota last night, there’s no surety. It’s just always a battle.”
The Scarlet Knights are last in the conference in 2-point percentage, 12th in 3-point percentage, 12th in scoring, 11th in 2-point percentage against, last in 3-point percentage against and 13th in points against. Even so, the Scarlet Knights managed to knock off Ohio State 64-61 on Jan. 9. Miles doesn’t want any let-down transitioning from a conference contender in Michigan State to a cellar dweller in Rutgers.
“I think that does happen a lot in basketball, but our coaches just always emphasize mindset,” Amir Harris said. “Coach Mo [Jim Molinari] always gives us a quote of the day referencing what we need to focus on that day or the team we’re going to face and I think that really helps us stay mentally locked in so we don’t — I’m not going to say stoop down to the level because every team in the Big Ten is good, but that really helps us a lot.”
Rutgers’s best player, forward Eugene Omoruyi, missed the Scarlet Knights’ last three game with a dislocated kneecap. That’s 14.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 36.4 percent 3-point shooting (all tops on the team) on the bench.
In Omoruyi’s absence, sophomore guard Geo Baker is Rutgers’ top offensive option. He’s averaging 12.9 points and 4.4 assists but is shooting just 35.3 percent from the field and turning the ball over 3.0 times per game.
“A good one-on-one player,” Miles said of Baker. “You saw at the end of the Ohio State game he made a great play — they just went five-out or one-four low and he made a great one-on-one move. He and [Corey] Sanders were that way last year except he’s got a little more responsibility and maturity. He’s a guy that can get away from you in transition and he can get hot, so we want to make sure that he doesn’t get off to a quick start.”
Rutgers may struggle to score the ball, but the roster has some good athletes as well as four players listed 6-foot-9 or taller and three that weigh over 240 pounds. Miles said their physicality is what stands out to him on film.
“Coach [Steve] Pikiell has this strong identity of what they want to be,” Miles said. “It’s the old UConn — big, strong athletic wings, huge bigs, shot-blocking, rebounding domination type stuff, and that will be good for us to go to. It will challenge us in a different way and so you’ve got to game plan it a little bit the same as Michigan State, but not quite exactly, and that’s always a challenge for us. We’ll need to stay out of foul trouble.”
Senior guard James Palmer Jr. is coming off of a 24-point performance against Michigan State, but it took him 21 shots to get there and he scored 12 of those points int he final two minutes after the Spartans had already pulled ahead by 12. He’s shot under 42 percent from the field in each of his last six games and is at 39.1 percent on the season. Miles message to his senior leader is simple.
“I want to see good shots out of him,” Miles said. “James is a playmaker, and he acts like it which is why sometimes he puts himself and our team in some difficult situations, but that’s why we roll him out there too. That’s a responsibility for him and it’s a great opportunity also. I want him to take great shots.”
Palmer’s recent struggles haven’t shaken his teammates faith in him in the least, according to Harris.
“I think he’s been really good for us,” Harris said. “He holds a lot of pressure on his back so sometimes that comes with the falls of having bad shooting nights. He’s always smiling and laughing and keeping everybody’s heads up so I’ll never doubt him and I’ll always keep my trust in him as a senior. I really respect that about him.”
Palmer’s shooting struggles and poor shot selection aren’t unique on this team, however. It’s a team-wide issue that Nebraska needs to address to get back to what had been a top-10 offense nationally in terms of adjusted efficiency according to KenPom.com.
“I think that our decisions lead as much into it as our shooting percentages,” Miles said. “I didn’t think our zone attack was very good against Iowa and we didn’t shoot well, and certainly our shot selection wasn’t very good against Michigan State. It will have to be great against Rutgers.”
Tipoff from Piscataway on Monday is set for 7 p.m. on BTN with Dave O’Brien and Stephen Bardo on the call.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.