At the 19:15 mark of Nebraska’s 70-60 loss to Ohio State on Saturday, the 2018-19 season took a drastic turn.
Senior forward Isaac Copeland caught the ball at the top of the key and shuffled his feet while looking to attack Ohio State center Kaleb Wesson’s closeout. An official called the travel but Copeland continued on his way to the rim, elevating for the dunk. Must Jallow flew in from the opposite wing and went up to block the dunk from the weak side, well after the whistle.
The slight contact was enough to cause Copeland to land awkwardly on his left leg, tweaking the knee. He stayed down on the baseline for a moment before limping to the bench. After getting his knee looked at and trying to move around on it for a bit, he went back to the locker room. He later returned to the bench, but did not return to the game.
Later on Saturday, Nebraska announced that Copeland had torn his ACL and that his season — and Nebraska career — was over.
So where does Nebraska go from here?
After Copeland went down, Tim Miles sent senior center Tanner Borchardt in for him, moving Isaiah Roby over to the four. That lineup — Glynn Watson Jr., Thomas Allen Jr., James Palmer Jr., Roby and Borchardt — will be the new starting lineup moving forward according to Tim Miles during his availability on Monday.
That group was on the court for just over eight minutes of game time and it outscored Ohio State by nine in that time. With Borchardt on the floor, Nebraska can only switch one through four as opposed to switching everything like they could with Roby at the five. However, he does provide a more stout post defender which could help keep Roby out of foul trouble and while he isn’t as fleet of foot as either Roby or Copeland, he moves well enough and understands positioning well enough to defend the pick-and-roll fairly well. Borchardt is a much better rebounder than Copeland as well, and perhaps starting him next to Roby will help the Huskers improve in that area.
The first change Miles made to that group in the second half was subbing in freshman Brady Heiman for Borchardt. It did not go well. In the nearly two minutes with Heiman on the court, Ohio State out-scored Nebraska 6-0. That was the last we saw of Heiman.
However, in the first half, Heiman played seven minutes and Nebraska was plus-2 with him on the court. In an ideal situation, Heiman would have redshirted this season; his struggles to even crack the lineup and stay on the floor when he did in Big Ten play have only reinforced that. But Nebraska is going to need him now because Borchardt (6.8 fouls per 40 minutes) and Roby (4.8) are the two most foul-prone players on the team.
Miles has experimented a little bit with jumbo lineups featuring both Borchardt and Heiman on the court with Roby or Copeland on the wing, and that is an option as well, but I’m not sure that Miles will go that way too often because I just don’t see how that group can manage to score well enough to keep up with good teams.
Nebraska did not do well with Nana Akenten on the court either. Nebraska got out-scored by 11 points in just over nine minutes with the sophomore in the game. He missed a couple of catch-and-shoot looks from 3 and made a couple of defensive mistakes.
Akenten is a candidate to see more playing time moving forward. Nebraska has not had a true back-up for Copeland this season, so it isn’t as simple as plugging that guy in since he doesn’t exist. Borchardt at the five with Roby at the four and a small-ball lineup with Akenten (6-foot-6, 215 pounds) at the four has been Nebraska’s most often-used lineups with Copeland out of the game. However, Akenten has struggled mightily in conference play, hitting just two of his 17 3s and scoring 20 total points on 27 shots. Nebraska needs him to get back on track.
Copeland’s absence is an absolute killer for the Huskers, both because of what Copeland himself has meant to the team and because Nebraska doesn’t have a lot of great options to replace his minutes. Tanner Borchardt, Nana Akenten and Brady Heiman should all see their minutes increase, and they’re going to have to step up their play in a big way.
Palmer played all 20 minutes in the second half, and a fifth foul was the only thing that kept Roby from doing the same. That’s not sustainable for a full 40 minutes every single night.
This change also places even more responsibility on those four healthy original starters. In watching back through that second half, Nebraska’s struggles weren’t all because of mistakes by the bench. Allen had one of his worst games of the season and Roby fouled out in the final minute with seven points and four turnovers.
Nebraska can’t afford any more performances like that from those two moving forward. Palmer and Watson both played as well as they have in some time, but that wasn’t enough without Copeland as that third option (he had eight points on 3-of-5 shooting and had just knocked down a corner 3 before leaving the game). Borchardt, Akenten and Heiman will get a chance to play more, but even if they do improve they’re not going to give Nebraska a ton of production. That is going to fall on Palmer, Watson, Roby and Allen.
Nebraska is going to need at least three of those four playing well every night offensively and the team is going to have to get back to the kind of defense it was playing in the nonconference in order to survive this loss.
Nebraska was already facing up an uphill battle with five losses in their last seven games, and now they’re going to have to right the ship without arguably their most consistent performer.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.