C.J. Wilcher played a season-low 10 minutes in Nebraska’s win against Wisconsin on Feb. 11. He did not see the court at all in the second half as the Huskers battled back from a 17-point deficit to win in overtime. He shot 31.2% from 3 through Nebraska’s first 26 games (after shooting 40.6% a season ago).
Yet when Nebraska took the court at Rutgers on Tuesday, he was among the first five as Fred Hoiberg used his ninth different starting lineup (and seventh in the past 11 games). Despite his struggles, Hoiberg gave him a chance to start while playing in his home state of New Jersey, and the 6-foot-5 guard delivered.
Wilcher finished with 17 points on 6-of-11 from the field including 5-of-9 from 3 (a career high for made 3s). He sparked the Huskers to one of their best offensive performances of the season as the Huskers hung 82 on the Scarlet Knights in a 10-point win.
“C.J., we felt good about him getting back in the lineup,” Hoiberg said. “I loved his energy on the bench, even though he didn’t play in the second half against Wisconsin. He was over there engaged and talking to guys, he was talking to guys in the huddle, and that’s what it’s all about. That’s what this team has been really good at: whatever their role is they’ve accepted it and and they’ve thrived in it. C.J., to not play in in a half and then go into a starting role and be as key as anybody on the floor the other night just, I think, shows you everything or tells you everything you need to know about this group.”
Let’s take a look at how Wilcher was able to get going, shall we?
Wilcher got off to a great start, knocking down his first three shots. Here’s the first one, about four-and-a-half minutes into the game.
First, Wilcher helps force the turnover with an aggressive double team on the post. Jamarques Lawrence pushes the pace and kicks to Keisei Tominaga, who got a piece of the paint before kicking it back to Lawrence in the corner. Caleb McConnell rotated to him, so Lawrence made the extra pass to Wilcher and he stepped in to knock down the shot over a late contest from Cam Spencer.
His next opportunity came on the next possession.
Wilcher took a handoff from Derrick Walker and looked to attack, but Aundre Hyatt got in front of him so he pulled back and ran a dribble handoff with Tominaga. Both defenders initially go with Tominaga as McConnell chases over the top while Hyatt shows underneath. Tominaga recognizes his gravity has drawn two and he makes the pass back to Wilcher who had popped to the left wing. He caught and fired with Hyatt recovering to contest and knocked it down.
His third triple came a couple minutes later. He’s feeling it now, and Nebraska called a set that saw him run off a screen from Sam Hoiberg to flare to the corner.
A miscommunication leads to both defenders initially going with Hoiberg, but Sam Griesel missed Wilcher coming free. Griesel looks back at him and delivers the ball as Hyatt has recovered, but Wilcher fires away anyway and buries it.
“He really, I thought, kept us in that game early,” Fred Hoiberg said. “They hit some shots, Hyatt hit a couple tough ones at the end of shot clocks, contested. They built a little bit of a lead but C.J. was able to keep us in it with his three 3s to start that game, and basically I think it was even. It was 16-16 with C.J. hitting three 3s. I think it gave us some early confidence with C.J. knocking down those shots.
Wilcher didn’t score again in the first half, but Nebraska closed strong with a 6-0 run to take a 40-35 lead at the break. It took him five minutes to get back in the scoring in the second half.
Nebraska ran another set that saw Wilcher taking a handoff from Derrick Walker, and this time the defender — Derek Simpson — went under the screen while Walker’s man, Antwone Woolfolk, ineffectually showed then recovered back to Walker before Simpson had gotten there. Wilcher saw enough space and let it fly, knocking it down.
Cam Spencer committed an offensive foul on the other end and Steve Pikiell gave Woolfolk a quick yank, less than two minutes after he checked in.
Wilcher turned the ball over on his next possession but made up for it with his fifth and final 3 immediately afterward.
At this point, it’s anyone’s game. As it had been much of the night, Rutgers pressed after a made bucket and fell back into a zone. Hoiberg beat a trap and got the ball out to Griesel who attacked and kicked it to Wilcher flaring out to the right wing without a defender near him because Jalen Miller didn’t want to leave Tominaga in the corner.
Wilcher’s final bucket — a 2 — came about four minutes later.
Off a sideline out of bounds play, Nebraska ran a flex action for Wilcher. Paul Mulcahy, the screener’s man, switched onto Wilcher as Jamarques Lawrence fed him down low. The 6-foot-7 Mulcahy is there on the catch, but Wilcher has never been shy about going up with the ball in the trees down low and on this play he dropped in a little baby hook to put the Huskers up by nine.
Wilcher wasn’t just a scorer against Rutgers, though. He also matched his career high with four assists, helping put an additional 11 points on the board for the Huskers. Here are all four.
There wasn’t anything too advanced in there — just Wilcher making the right read and putting the ball where it needed to go based on what the defense was doing. He also had three turnovers all on bad passes, so it wasn’t a perfect game, but it was certainly a big step forward for a guy who had been struggling most of the season, and he truly was the difference in the game.
At this point, Griesel, Walker, Tominaga and Lawrence have solidified themselves as starters, but Hoiberg said that fifth spot will depend on matchups as Nebraska heads into the stretch run, starting with Sunday’s game against Maryland. Denim Dawson went from starting eight games in a row to playing seven minutes against Wisconsin to not playing at all against Wisconsin. Hoiberg is trying everything he can with Nebraska’s shortened roster, and it’s paying dividends with three wins in their last four games.
“We’re going to continue to rotate that fifth starter and kind of see where it takes us … We’ll see what happens,” Hoiberg said. “This might be another game where Blaise [Keita] and Derrick get some minutes together. Blaise plays four minutes after playing a season high against Wisconsin; that’s just the way right now our team is built and a lot of times what the other team’s rotation looks like. But we have some versatility with this team, being able to play big, being able to play small, and you’ll continue to see those lineups here down the stretch.”
Whether Wilcher is in the starting lineup or not, his floor spacing is key to Nebraska approaching its offensive ceiling, and if the Rutgers game was him breaking out of his extended shooting slump, it could point to a strong finish to the season for Nebraska.