LINCOLN, Neb. – After a tough four-game stretch away from home, the Huskers are back at Pinnacle Bank Arena to face off against a familiar foe – the South Dakota Coyotes led by former Nebraska assistant coach Craig Smith.
“Craig Smith and the South Dakota Coyotes are coming in,” Coach Tim Miles said. “It will be a lot of fun. Craig’s been a friend of mine for over 20 years now and it will be great. One of the things we talked about when he was up for the job with him and his administration was making sure we played a game, and I promised him we would. They thought I promised that we’d go there; their hearing’s faulty, but we’re more than excited to have them up here. I think that Craig’s got his team, his kind of guys. They don’t have incredible depth but the guys they do have are very capable. As you can see, they have some impressive wins.”
The Coyotes are 6-3 and coming off a two-point loss to Kansas City. Some of their wins came over Drake, Kent State, Bowling Green State and Montana. Miles said he is expecting another close game.
“Craig knows how to manage a game,” Miles said. “He knows how to control tempo. I’d be really surprised if this game ever separated. I would expect a tough match all the way down to the end.”
After starting off 4-0, the Huskers have lost three straight to UCLA, Virginia Tech and Clemson, the only three major conference teams they’ve faced so far. South Dakota hails from the Summit League and gives Nebraska another chance to get back in the win column before hosting Creighton and traveling to Kansas.
“This is a huge game for us,” Miles said. “They all are. With this schedule, if we can get to 19 wins, I’m really curious to see what our numbers will be RPI-wise. I think it’s going to be higher than people think with 18 or 19 wins. It’s a beast of a league, it’s a beast of a schedule, but you just have to scratch out any win you can. We’re learning more about ourselves. We talk about a recipe for winning is one, eliminate losing; two, take away the strengths of your opponent; and three is somewhere in there players are going to have to make some plays and step up. Maybe a coach steps up and makes some brilliant call like go to a zone or something crazy, but I don’t usually do that. I leave it to the players.”
The Huskers failed to crack 60 points in both of their last two losses while getting minimal contributions outside of their top two or three players in both. Miles said the team is at a crossroads.
“I told our guys this in film yesterday is going to be 2014 or 2015,” Miles said. “Either we’re going to get it together on offense and have a great year, or we’re going to struggle, and it’s our choice because it’s in our control. If we go out with a defensive mindset like we did in ’14 and stay with it, we will find enough offense. I truly believe that.”
However, in order to find the necessary offense Nebraska is going to have to find a way to start hitting more shots from the perimeter. The Huskers are 299th in the country at 30.5 percent shooting from 3-point range. Tai Webster is shooting 40 percent, Glynn Watson Jr. is at 34.6 percent and no one else is above 32 percent.
“We’re not making 3s,” Miles said. “Let’s face it. Every time we make 3s, I don’t care who it is. If we’re ahead by a few points, we separate. If we’re behind, we close the gap. You just look at anything. We have five, six possessions and make a couple 3s in there and we’re a completely different team. Obviously we have to try to get that going, whether it be by confidence or coaches have to manufacture something for them. But we’ve got to get those main guys, besides Tai and Glynn, we have to get those other guys hitting outside shots.”
After shooting 10-of-19 from deep in Nebraska’s first three games at home, sophomore Jack McVeigh has hit just two of his last 19. However, McVeigh has earned his playing time, something that the newcomers on the bench are still trying to accomplish, according to Miles.
“Jack’s a guy I believe in, Jack’s a guy who is going to get the opportunity,” Miles said. “He does a terrific job in team defense. Right now we’re at a point with the young guys where there’s one clear expectation. If you’re not going to guard, you’re not going to play. If you’re not going to handle the ball well, you’re not going to play. In any of those instances, you’re going to get eliminated. Right now this team is such that we can put a team on the floor that will give us a chance to win or put us in a position at one time or another that we can seize control of the game and win a game against a lot of teams … There’s such a small margin for error that it’s hard to get those guys out and get the necessary experience.”
Nebraska lost 60-58 at Clemson on Wednesday despite having a couple chances to tie the game in the final seconds. Because of a rules change last year, coaches can no longer call timeouts from the sideline when the ball is in play, and against Clemson the players did not do so and Nebraska ended up with a couple missed shots by Watson, a travel by Anton Gill and a missed runner at the buzzer by Webster.
“I think it’s cost us two games, quite frankly,” Miles said about the rule. “I thought it cost us Ohio State last year and I think it probably cost us this year too [against Clemson]. He just said that he saw Glynn making a move, so he decided to let it go, and then when the ball got kicked out to Anton with 11 seconds, we still could have gotten it then.”
They didn’t though, and it is hard to fault them after playing it out against Dayton resulted in a foul and the game-winning free throws by Watson.
“Tai’s smart,” Miles said. “He just saw Glynn win the Dayton game by going to the rim and getting fouled and we didn’t call time. We looked to call timeout and then we didn’t. Now we’re in almost the same situation, but when Glynn got bounced out wider than I want … I just didn’t think he had the edge. But that wasn’t until it was just right out in front of me about the 28-foot line. Then you try to get a timeout out and Glynn made a crossover move and then we took some bad shots and we traveled. There was still time left in the game.”
Miles said rather than making the game easier on officials by eliminating the need to pay attention to coaches during live action, it has just resulted in officials limiting their focus to the ball-handler and ultimately hurting the game. Miles cited an example last year where a player off the ball was calling for a timeout rather than the one with the ball and none of the officials saw him or granted the timeout.
“For the refs it’s hard because they’re so locked in on the ball now that they don’t have to worry about the sideline for it where in the old days you’d get a savvy veteran official to say ‘I’m right there with you; if you need me let me know.’ … Now that doesn’t exist,” Miles said. “I don’t like the rule. In fact, I was in [assistant coach Jim] Molinari’s – because Molinari used to be on the rules committee – I’m like you call every one of those guys, cut the tape, show them what a BS rule this is. I don’t care what FIBA does; we’re not playing with 25-year-old guys. It was a disappointing deal.”
Tip-off for Nebraska and South Dakota is set for 1 p.m. on Saturday.
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.