They talked about playing angry and it didn’t translate over to the court. Then they talked about needing to play tougher. It still didn’t translate. For head coach Tim Miles and his team, everyone is pretty tired of talking at this point.
“We’re in this,” Miles said Monday night as NU, losers of three straight and five of the last seven, preps for a home tilt with Wisconsin on Tuesday (7 p.m. CT on BTN). “We have to play winning basketball. We have to fight. We have to play harder.”
It looked like the Huskers weren’t playing hard late Saturday when they lost to Ohio State at home by 10 to snap a five-game Buckeye slide. It looked like they weren’t because they weren’t, but not because they didn’t care. Nebraska has played frustrated for a few weeks now, fearful of small failures in-game that lead to poor results that lead to more frustration.
“I don’t think there’s any question they’re playing with a great deal of frustration,” Miles said. “What we’ve got to do is get them past that, we have to stay positive when stuff goes wrong and just hang in there with each other.
“Last game, the in-game injury [to forward Isaac Copeland] stressed them out, you get behind by four or five and take a couple tough shots and pretty soon you’re down seven or eight. Our biggest thing is trying to get these guys to stay positive with each other and not get so frustrated and find a winning way.”
Junior forward Isaiah Roby said in recent weeks the Huskers want to get up 10 on teams, and when they don’t, they get tight and feel like they’re playing poorly. Miles uses the phrase “bickery;” his team gets defensive when things start to go wrong. It all speaks to a group very aware of the expectations placed on their shoulders before the season and a group aware of the consequences of failing to live up to those expectations.
Against the Buckeyes, specifically, starting forward Isaac Copeland’s injury early in the second half shifted the mood. Miles saw it. Copeland left the game after landing wrong on his left leg following a drive to the basket. An MRI after the game revealed a torn ACL in his left knee, a season-ending (and for Copeland, a collegiate career-ending) diagnosis.
Whispers of whether this was it for the season were natural. Nobody off the bench has played more than 15 minutes a night this season. The starters are relied on heavily for just about everything. And there’s a depth issue separate of the complete lack of bodies in the frontcourt.
But those whispers aren’t coming from Pinnacle Bank Arena. Copeland, who will do some light “prehab” before surgery in a few weeks, is still with the team and was at practice Monday night. After Saturday’s game, guard James Palmer Jr. was one of the first people to reach out to Miles.
“I’m ready,” Miles says Palmer told him. “I’m going to help us on both sides of the ball. Let’s go.’”
Over the last two days of practice, Miles says he’s seen his team respond positively. The energy level has been good and he’s hearing guys talking more on the floor. There have been positives. He said he doesn’t expect many to pick Nebraska over the Badgers Tuesday night and said he’s fine playing into the underdog mentality more. Roby said that makes the chip on the collective shoulder just a little bit bigger.
“I didn’t lose hope,” Miles said. “I have not lost hope in this team.
“The fact that Isaac’s out doesn’t have me sitting there saying, ‘Woe is us.’ We’re excited, we like our group, like the adventure and the challenge of what’s in front of us and I believe in this group a great deal. Instead of a Big Four you’ve got a Big Three and that can still be very effective.
“We’ve just got to believe in ourselves and stay positive. … We can’t worry about outcomes, we just have to play winning basketball until we run out of time. When we’ve done that, we’ve shown we can be a very, very good basketball team. We’ve just got to get back to that.”
For their part, the Huskers are saying the right things. But getting back to what made them 11-2 might be easier said than done in the wake of Copeland’s injury. Miles announced senior forward Tanner Borchardt would move into the starting lineup at the five spot and slide Roby down to the four.
Meaning Nebraska will have one player on the bench taller than 6-foot-6 (freshman Brady Heiman) and two starting bigs who average 4.8 (Roby) and 6.8 (Borchardt) fouls per 40 minutes. Miles says he comfortable with Borchardt’s game but needs him to play cleaner.
Sophomore Nana Akenten and freshman Amir Harris will both spend time at the four as well, likely in short bursts given the lack of size those lineups would have. Miles said Harris’ role will be the only one changed. The lineups will be tweaked but the rotation won’t be tightened. “I don’t think we can play less,” Miles said. So, expect more of Heiman.
And what a time for Wisconsin (14-6, 6-3 Big Ten) to come to town with its star big man, senior forward Ethan Happ (18.9 points, 10.4 boards, 5.2 assists), and stretch-four big, sophomore Nate Reuvers (8.7 points, 40 percent from 3).
The Badgers play through Happ in every way possible.
“[Badger coach] Greg Gard has done a great job moving him around and playing him in different capacities — a ball-handler, he might be a screener, he might be a cutter into the post or he might just start down low or whatever it might be, he might screen on the ball, off the ball,” Miles said. “Greg’s done a really good job keeping that a fresh perspective, I think. It used to be you knew where he was going to get his touches, where guys might be and now you don’t know.”
Happ leads the Big Ten in shots from two-point range. No one in the league has a better PER and only Purdue’s Carsen Edwards has a higher usage rate. Then there’s Reuvers, who leads the league in block percentage. In conference games this season, the frontcourt pairing is producing 28 points a night. Happ is the engine that has already fueled wins over Michigan and Iowa on the road.
The Huskers’ frontcourt will be tested.
With Roby sliding to the four, you won’t see him glued to Happ on the defensive end all night. He’ll be able to roam a little bit more and switch onto Badger guards more than he was able to as the five-man. He’s comfortable doing that. But he’s also comfortable going against Happ.
The two work out together. This past summer, Happ let Roby know all about the 25 points he scored on the Huskers last season.
“But I’m 2-1 over him,” Roby said. “So I’ll take the team wins over personal accolades against them.”
Mindset seems right.
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.