On Jan. 22, Nebraska gave the Ohio State Buckeyes a run for their money before ultimately coming up a bit short in Columbus.
Since then the Huskers have won eight of their last nine, but none of them have come against ranked opponents. That will change on Friday assuming seedings hold in the Big Ten Tournament as Nebraska will likely see No. 15 Michigan in the quarterfinals. Win that, and Nebraska should get a shot at the top-seeded Spartans of Michigan State, currently ranked No. 2 in the nation.
Getting one or both of those wins would go a long way towards solidifying Nebraska’s place as an NCAA Tournament team, but that is easier said than done. The effort Nebraska put forth against the likes of Maryland, Illinois and Indiana won’t be enough.
Nebraska’s defense is more than good enough to compete with the big boys. The Huskers are in the top three in the Big Ten in opponent 2-point percentage, opponent 3-point percentage and shot-blocking.
The Huskers need their offense to match their defense to knock off the best teams in the Big Ten, however. Nebraska’s offensive efficiency has to improve as the Huskers are 11th in the Big Ten in both 2-point and 3-point percentage, and while they’re first in total free-throw attempts, they’re only converting those shots at a 73.2 percent rate (sixth in the league).
A quick look at the recent play of the front court shows the Nebraska big men are getting the job done offensively.
Junior Isaac Copeland’s efficiency spiked once Big Ten play began as the 6-foot-9 forward is shooting 42.9 percent from 3 after connecting on just 12 of his 42 attempts (28.6 percent) in the nonconference. Over his past nine games alone, Copeland has averaged 15.6 points with five games of 17 or more points.
Copeland — who shot 38.9 percent from 3 as a freshman at Georgetown but struggled mightily from his sophomore season on up until his recent uptick — said his confidence has never wavered throughout the ups and downs, but with his shot now falling he has become an even more dangerous weapon for the Huskers.
“I’m still as confident as I was when I first came in, but I think it helps our team out a lot,” Copeland said about his perimeter shooting. “It provides more of a mismatch problem for the opposite team.”
Speaking of mismatches, sophomore Isaiah Roby has really come into his own as a small-ball center. The 6-foot-8 forward reached double figures just eight times in his first 22 games but has hit that mark in each of his last six. Over that stretch, Roby is averaging 13.3 points on nearly 70 percent from the field including 5-of-7 from 3 and 75 percent from the foul line. He also dished out 12 assists with just nine turnovers.
Heck, even Jordy Tshimanga has turned into consistent producer off the bench since his return to the team. In his last eight, he’s putting in 6.6 points per game while shooting 62.2 percent from the field.
Nebraska needs more out of its backcourt, however. The Huskers don’t have a single guard who is shooting better than 32 percent from 3 in Big Ten play. After looking like a much improved team in the nonconference, the Huskers have slipped back to below average with just Copeland and Roby holding up the team’s percentage.
James Palmer Jr. went on a ridiculous tear for half of conference play, averaging 23.4 points and 3.6 assists while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field over the course of nine games. However, over his last three, Palmer has averaged 13 points on 28.9 percent from the field. As defensive attention increased and shots stopped falling, Palmer has struggled to be the all-conference force that Nebraska needs.
“Every game somebody is going to key on me and do their best to try to stop me,” Palmer said. “I’m just being more patient. Whether the shot’s falling or not, just being patient and let the game fall.”
The big problem for Palmer is that his perimeter shot just isn’t there, and that started before this last three-game stretch. He shot 14-of-33 (42.4 percent) in the first five games of that nine-game run. Since then, he’s made just six 3s on 32 attempts in seven games. That’s 18.8 percent.
Glynn Watson Jr. has struggled with his 3-point shot all season. His percentage has actually seen an uptick in Big Ten play — to 29.2 percent. After scoring 13 points per game as one of the team’s top scoring options alongside Tai Webster last season, Watson’s role has completely changed.
“Glynn’s had to change his situation,” Coach Tim Miles said. “He went from a go-to guy, one of the top two shot-getters in the offense for maybe two years, a year-and-a-half, to now playing with Palmer, playing with Copeland and having shooters still there that he can deliver the ball to, so adapting his game accordingly. I think he’s done it really well and he’s done it without any ego and he’s got a great attitude and just wants the best for the team.”
Watson’s defense has certainly improved this season and Nebraska still needs him as the only true primary initiator and ball-handler on the team, and despite his offensive struggles (10.8 points per game on 30.8 percent shooting in the Big Ten), his teammates still have faith in him and believe the guy who went off for 29 points against Minnesota in December is still in there.
“He responded real well,” Palmer said. “Obviously he’s not shooting the ball good this year but we all know he can score, he can get 30 points at any given moment. He’s a lock-down defender — a lot of people don’t know that. He’s definitely doing a good job of leading the team and whether he’s scoring or not, he’s always a positive guy.”
Watson’s 3-point shot abandoning him is a big problem, but the bigger issue is that he hasn’t been able to convert inside the arc either. Whether it’s that step-back 18-footer or drives to the rim, the shots just haven’t fallen for Watson this year.
However, the last two games have offered a sign of hope heading into the postseason. He still isn’t hitting 3s (1-of-4 against Indiana, no attempts against Penn State), but he totaled 19 points and eight assists while shooting 6-of-11 inside the arc.
“I think Glynn, the last two games, has played pretty well,” Miles said. “His numbers have come out pretty well in how we measure him. I think he’s in a good spot. I think that Anton Gill looked good shooting the ball the other night.”
Gill is another tough one to figure out. He shot the lights out from deep in the nonconference. He’s shot 40 percent or better from 3 in eight of his 18 Big Ten games. In the other 10, he’s shot a combined 9-of-47 from deep (19.1 percent). He’s as hit-or-miss as they come at this stage.
After hitting 12 of his 21 3-point attempts in the nonconference, Evan Taylor is just 3-of-11 from deep in the Big Ten. Freshman Thomas Allen has played seven or fewer minutes in each of the last four games.
The point is that it will be tough to count on any of the role players to suddenly elevate their games against top-level competition.
Copeland and Roby are quickly becoming one of the best frontcourts in the Big Ten, but they’re going to need some help for Nebraska to make a run in New York City. James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr. have to be studs again.
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.