Fred Hoiberg and the Huskers have put themselves in a difficult spot.
In a lot of situations, Tuesday’s effort against Michigan would have left fans encouraged. The Huskers went toe-to-toe with the Wolverines in their building for 39 minutes. They got a stellar performance from their star freshman. They gave up a big run out of halftime but showed the resiliency to weather the storm and strike back. In the end, Hunter Dickinson was the best player on the floor and made the difference, and the Wolverines pulled it out in the final minute.
However, Nebraska fans have seen that exact game a few times already this season. They’ve seen a few more where the Huskers have been close for 35 or so minutes before letting games slip away. And they’ve seen a few where the Huskers have gotten run off the floor.
What they haven’t seen is a win over another high-major team. Nebraska is 0-11 in conference play now after dropping all four high-major games in the nonconference. We’ve seen everything from missed box-outs to empty trips to the free-throw line to poor shot selection to untimely turnovers late in games. If there’s a way to lose a game, Nebraska’s found a way to do it this season.
This was supposed to be the year Hoiberg’s team put things together in Lincoln. After two years of roster tweaking, Hoiberg brought back a core of veterans and paired it with the highest-ranked recruiting class in modern program history including a 5-star recruit. Yet the Huskers are sitting at 6-16 through 22 games.
Last year, they were 5-17 through 22 games with a 1-14 conference record, and that included the crazy schedule after the month-long pause. In Hoiberg’s first year, they were 7-15 including 2-9 in Big Ten play through 22 games.
It’s worse than just the losing, though. It’s the way these games play out. This roster is flawed — much more so than I anticipated heading into the year — which has created a small margin for error. However, it’s not like Nebraska is playing well only to get out-talented game in and game out. The Huskers have contributed as much to their losses as their opponents, particularly late in games. We keep seeing this team fall back into the same traps, and at a certain point that has to be on the coaching.
When things start to go South, the ball and man movement seem to break down and the offense grinds into “get mine” mode. I don’t know if that’s a lack of trust in teammates or a lack of direction from the head coach or what leads to it, but that really cost them in the Rutgers game after a really good start.
Defensive rebounding has been a consistent problem, and the Huskers have given up key offensive rebounds in multiple losses now, including Tuesday at Michigan. It would be one thing if they were simply giving them up because they were undersized, but that hasn’t been the case for the boards I’m talking about. They simply haven’t put in the effort in some of the biggest moments of the season to box out, particularly on the perimeter.
Again, the losing is one thing, but Nebraska fans have had a lot of experience supporting losing teams; the crowds were pretty strong throughout the Miles era. What turns fans off is selfishness and lack of effort. Right now, watching Nebraska play is hard for a lot of fans that I hear from.
Nebraska has some of the worst history and tradition in all of high-major basketball. Lincoln isn’t exactly a destination city either. The biggest selling point for the program is the fan support and atmosphere at Pinnacle Bank Arena, and right now it’s not very good. That isn’t a shot at the fans — the team has to give them a reason to fill the arena, and they just aren’t doing that right now.
Hoiberg is in serious danger of losing the fan base, and he has to find some answers. If the Huskers lose at home to Northwestern on Saturday, things could get really bad. There are a lot of good teams in the Big Ten again this year and the Huskers’ league schedule was pretty front-loaded, but the Wildcats are 10-10 and 3-8 in Big Ten play after blowing a 24-point lead in regulation only to squeak past Rutgers in overtime at Welsh-Ryan Arena on Tuesday. That being said, the Wildcats do have some talent and haven’t gotten blown out yet (their largest margin of defeat in Big Ten play is 10 points to Purdue).
Hoiberg is going to have to push all the right buttons to get a win against the Wildcats, and it doesn’t seem like we’ve seen him do that just yet this season.
Focusing on Tuesday’s loss at Michigan in particular, Nebraska did show a lot of resiliency before losing the game in the final minute. C.J. Wilcher hit a pair of free throws with 1:20 to play. Instead of making an offense for defense substitution, Hoiberg left the same five — including a perimeter trio of Keisei Tominaga, Kobe Webster and Bryce McGowens plus C.J. Wilcher at the four — that he had rolled with since the 12:33 mark. He didn’t make a single substitution until Derrick Walker committed his fifth four with three seconds left.
On the play after Wilcher’s free throws, Michigan point guard DeVante’ Jones — defended by Tominaga — dumped the ball down to the 7-foot-1 Dickinson above the left block. Tominaga turned his head as the ball went inside looking to double-team the 7-footer and Jones immediately cut to the rim for the give-and-go layup. Perhaps if Trey McGowens, Nebraska’s best perimeter defender, had been on the court they might have defended that action better.
Then, after Webster had the ball poked free from behind trying to run a pick-and-roll, the Huskers had a chance to give themselves one last chance with a stop. Webster went under the screen and Jones — 0-for-3 from deep at that point — rose up for an off-the-dribble 3. You’ll live with that shot in that situation every time. However, “long shot, long rebound” is a mantra pounded into almost every young basketball player’s head. The ball bounced hard off the rim out past the free-throw line where Michigan’s Kobe Bufkin corralled it. Instead of finding Bufkin immediately on the right wing and making contact, Tominaga gave up ground and by the time he tried to box him out it was too late.
Bufkin got the ball to Eli Brooks and Nebraska fouled him with 15.7 to play. He hit both to push the lead to four and essentially seal the game.
I’m not trying to put this loss on Tominaga specifically, but I don’t understand why he was on the floor for the two biggest defensive possessions in the game when you had a better option for that specific situation sitting on your bench. Having the same five guys play 12 consecutive minutes without making a single substitution and expecting them to have the energy to win 50-50 balls down the stretch is asking a lot.
What’s even more interesting about Tominaga finishing the game is what happened with six minutes to play. To his credit, he provided a huge spark for the team with two tough finishes at the basket as bigger players chased him off the arc, and then he knocked down a 3 when Hoiberg drew up a play for him out of the timeout. At that point, Nebraska led by seven.
Tominaga actually made a terrific defensive play immediately after that, cleanly blocking Dickinson from behind as a help defender. But an official made a terrible call and Tominaga lost his head. His reactions to non-calls have actually been somewhat entertaining, but it went too far as Tominaga ran out to half court waving his arms despite Webster trying to hold him back. The officials T’d him up and it provided Michigan with some much-needed juice as the Wolverines scored four points from the free-throw line on the possession.
Hoiberg left him in the rest of the game despite the costly outburst, and now we’re back to the conversation about accountability.
As the saying goes, hindsight is 20/20, but I didn’t think Tuesday was one of Hoiberg’s better game management performances down the stretch, which is unfortunate because the game was one of Nebraska’s better offensive performances of the season and the Huskers still couldn’t get a win. Once again, the margin for error for this team is so small, and it’s going to need a nearly perfect performance from both players and coaches in order to pull off a win in this conference, which is something we haven’t seen yet this season.
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.