After 92 seconds of play between Nebraska and Penn State last Friday, head coach Tim Miles pulled guard James Palmer Jr., sending out sixth man Anton Gill earlier than usual. Miles re-inserted Palmer 74 seconds later.
“Anytime a guy goes down and makes an offensive error, or a couple of them, coupled with a defensive error and we’re on the road, I usually want to get their attention,” Miles said. “So we’ll either call a timeout or we’ll sub and just talk and say ‘hey, here’s the issue, here’s what’s got to be solved and it’s got to be solved now.’”
The Huskers, now 12-7 overall and dead even at 3-3 in league play thanks to a 76-74 loss to the Nittany Lions, made things very interesting late Friday evening, but ultimately fell in overtime on the road. Miles couldn’t help but feel like the team was just off.
“I just felt like, even in the second half, we’re always missing on a defensive assignment or missing an easy shot,” he said, “and quite frankly we made a run with other guys so I just ran with them.”
And that’s where the saving grace can be found from a coin-flip game that could have gone the Huskers’ way but didn’t. The “other” guys stepped up.
Junior wing Jack McVeigh re-entered the rotation for the first time since Dec. 22 and gave Miles 21 solid minutes. He didn’t score, but McVeigh was one of only three Huskers with a positive plus/minus. Duby Okeke started in place of Jordy Tshimanga as drama swirls. Isaiah Roby contributed a career-high 12 points, six boards and three assists in 28 minutes.
“Some other guys really stepped up and to me, that’s as much of the story as anything,” Miles said. “That’s what you hope. We need to get everybody clicking.”
But that’s something that hasn’t really happened of late for Miles’ squad. In a Jan. 9 win over Wisconsin, Palmer led the way in the scoring column with 18 points while guard Glynn Watson Jr. continued to struggle. Against Penn State, Watson busted his slump with 21 points but Palmer slipped.
“That’s what we haven’t been able to do,” Miles said of getting everyone playing well at the same time. “The quicker we can make that happen, the better off we are. But, it’s also nice when somebody’s not going, that [the other guys] do it.”
Miles looked at forward Isaac Copeland’s game on Friday as a teaching tool for everyone else. Copeland was 1-of-5 at halftime, with no real impact on the game. In the second half, he got going behind two steals and a block, fueling a resurgent 6-of-8 shooting performance for 19 points.
“He got it going the second half and it started with defense and then he really got going,” Miles said. “That’s what we need guys to understand, is how do you get yourself going and what you have to do to get yourself going.”
The Huskers enter Monday’s matchup with Illinois (10-8, 0-5 Big Ten) looking for some clarity in a lot of areas. There’s Tshimanga’s status, there are the continued shooting struggles, there are the poor starts that reared an ugly head again Friday.
“I think everybody’s just a little bit frustrated because that was a big game for us and we didn’t really come out playing like it was that important,” Roby said. “We played really good to get back into it and go to overtime but we’re not a good enough team right now to come out slow and still beat a team like Penn State.”
And they’re not overlooking Illinois because of the record either.
“They play a really unique style, they like to speed everybody up,” he said. “They’re dangerous because if you don’t take care of the ball… they can run up the score on you.
“Also on offense, if we fall asleep or come out slow like we did last game, we could look up and be down 20 early. It’s a real heavy mental game for us, just coming out prepared and keeping that for the whole 40 minutes.”
Miles said he’s longtime friends with Illinois coach Brad Underwood. He said Underwood’s high-pressure defense, high-post spread offense is sort of an outlier style of play and a “unique scout.” Forget the record, Illinois does have three overtime losses in conference play, after all.
“They’re ranked higher than we are in Sagarin and all the other power rankings so we’re clearly the underdog,” Miles said with a smirk. But then he got serious. “If we don’t play like an underdog we’ll get beat.”
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.