Tim Miles has a simple message for his team as the Huskers try to snap out of a four-game losing streak: stick with it.
He used that phrase four different times during his post-practice media availability on Friday as the Huskers prepare for Saturday’s game at Illinois.
“I think we’ve practiced really hard,” Miles said. “I think we’re ready for Illinois. It’s interesting when you watch the last time we played them, it was just a team on the hop. We had a great confidence level and we just need to get back to playing that way. But you earn confidence, and that’s why I think when you have a low-confidence team, you’ve got to bring them along a little more slowly and stick with them and stay positive.”
The Huskers are still trying to figure things out after losing senior forward Isaac Copeland Jr. to a torn ACL, and the first game without him was not pretty on the offensive end. Miles said the Huskers don’t have to find an entirely new identity, however.
“We’re certainly searching for confidence; there’s no doubt about it,” Miles said. “We can all see it in their body language. In this league, you can get slapped around really well. Wisconsin went through four in a row earlier this year. It’s not mutually exclusive to us. So we have to stick with it. We know our game plan works, we know we’re good enough. If I could give you a nickel for every time one of our guys said, ‘I think once we get one, once we get one,’ and it’s true, we just have to get on the board. It doesn’t matter if it’s Illinois or Maryland after that or whatever. We’ve just got to go out every night because you know — look what Illinois has done just in the last two weeks: obliterated a good Minnesota team and then on a neutral beat a very good, highly-ranked team in Maryland. They’re a very hard team to play against and they’ve got a lot of talent. When they get it together, it’s tough to beat.”
The only real change Miles has made in practice this week has been to get sophomore Nana Akenten and freshman Amir Harris more reps at the four in small-ball lineups. The Huskers beat Illinois 75-60 in Lincoln on Dec. 2, and even without Copeland the Huskers wont change things dramatically in round two.
“I think the game plan is the game plan against Illinois,” Miles said. “Certainly with Isaac being gone, you’re one man down, a big handler — that’s what’s really great about our matchup with him. But we lost to them last year out there. They zoned us, they went man. I would assume we’ll see the same. So we’ve just got to approach our game plan from the same — control what we do, play like the underdog, stick with it and good things will happen.”
The Illini are 6-15 overall and 2-8 in conference play, but those wins came against Minnesota and Maryland in the last few weeks and Illinois is one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers.
“Pressure you, beat you up turn you over,” Miles said. “Just overplay everything, make it impossible to get a rhythm. They do a great job. If you look at it, Maryland played right into their hands, I thought — got worked up a little bit, turned it over and then took some quick shots, and that can be our crutch too so we really have to be careful. Last time I thought we handled it pretty good, but every game’s a new challenge.”
Whereas the Huskers are down a man from the first time they played Illinois, the Illini made an addition in 6-foot-7 freshman Tevian Jones who missed some early games because of a suspension. He’s scored in double figures in his last two games including 18 against Maryland.
“Tevian Jones I think has helped them,” Miles said. “He had a big night against Maryland. He was a national-level recruit, a 4-star guy. He’s back in their fold now. He missed some games with suspension and then they just sat on him some, so I think they’ve got more talent than less talent.”
A big key for the Huskers will be keeping senior center Tanner Borchardt on the floor and out of foul trouble. Nebraska outscored Wisconsin by four with their starting lineup including Borchardt in place of Copeland, but Borchardt fouled out in just 15 minutes.
“We’ve got to keep Tanner in the game,” Miles said. “I was watching tape with James [Palmer Jr.] and the first thing out of his mouth was ‘We’ve got to keep T in the game.’ It just changes everything. He’s a very valuable guy and then when you take out Isaac you realize that, which is, I think, good for Tanner. It’s a new responsibility and I think it’s good for him. I’m seeing his confidence even grow from that.”
Tipoff on Saturday is set for 1:15 p.m. on BTN. Brandon Gaudin and Shon Morris will have the call.
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.