Barring bad news between now and Saturday, Nebraska will take the court for its first game since Jan. 10.
That’s 26 days between games, and many of those days were spent in isolation for roughly half of the Tier 1 personnel in the program. They only just returned to the practice floor this past weekend and almost immediately ran into problems.
In case you forgot during the long layoff, Nebraska is 4-8 this season and lost its last five games — all against Big Ten competition — before hitting pause. What can we expect to see when the team gets back on the court?
The good news is the program pause was long enough for nearly everyone to go through the Big Ten’s return to play protocol. When Fred Hoiberg spoke with the media on Tuesday, all but two members of the team had already been cleared, and he was hopeful the other two would join them later this week. Unfortunately, Dalano Banton rolled his ankle on Sunday and Hoiberg listed him as day-to-day.
From an available bodies standpoint, Nebraska should be at full strength on Saturday, pending Banton’s recovery. There’s no way they’re all going to be at the top of their games, however, and it might be awhile before they get their stamina levels back to where they were before the pause. Hoiberg has played primarily a seven-to-eight-man rotation with Banton, Teddy Allen and Trey McGowens all playing more than 27 minutes per game. Hoiberg said he’s probably going to have to go deeper into his bench and rotate guys in and out more often, so expect different substitution patterns early on than what we’ve seen previously.
For the first time all season, Hoiberg will have all three centers — Yvan Ouedraogo, Derrick Walker and Eduardo Andre — available in the same game. Shamiel Stevenson has also shown some value as a small-ball five, so Hoiberg has some tinkering to do to figure out how all the pieces fit together best. Walker showed in his first game as a Husker (10 points on 5-of-7 shooting) that he brings a much-needed dynamic to the team as a high-level finisher around the basket, and I’m looking forward to seeing how Hoiberg incorporates him into what they do.
The lowest point of the season thus far was the 90-54 massacre at Ohio State. At no point during that game did Nebraska seriously compete, and things looked to be heading in the wrong direction. However, the Huskers responded that loss with much better efforts against Michigan State and Indiana, and although they lost both games, Hoiberg saw some good things.
“I was actually very pleased with how we were playing, especially in our last two games,” Hoiberg said. “I thought we played very well for the majority of the game against Michigan State; had a chance to win, missed a key block-out there at the end but it was a two-possession game under a minute.
“Then Indiana, the way we came back and took the lead, I thought we executed down the stretch maybe as well as we had all year. We missed four free throws, we missed a wide open 3 from Lat [Mayen] who was our best player as far as shooting the ball that game and missed a layup during that stretch, but we very easily could have won that game. I was very pleased. That was one of the hard things about this shutdown when it happened is I thought we had a little momentum with how we were playing and felt we were very close.”
Though the Huskers struggled defensively, they did turn something of a corner offensively with those two games. Nebraska shot 49.1% from the field including 47.4% from 3 against Michigan State and followed that up with 45.6% from the field and 39.1% from deep against the Hoosiers. The Huskers scored 77 and 76 points in those two games, their highest totals of the season against other high-major teams. For Hoiberg’s system to work, the Huskers are going to have to hit shots, and they started to do that just before the pause. Now they’ll have to find a way to get that going again after all this time off, and that won’t be easy (as we saw with Michigan State scoring 37 points its first game back from a program pause).
Another tough thing about the timing of the pause is it included games against two of the more beatable teams in the conference in Maryland and Penn State. The Huskers will return to play against a struggling team they’ve already seen in the Spartans, so that’s a positive, then they’ll dive right into a three-game week at Minnesota, at home against Wisconsin and at Penn State.
The Huskers are going to have quick turnarounds after every game the rest of the season, and they aren’t going to have a ton of practice time to figure things out. They’re really going to have to learn on the fly. A team that needed as much time together on the court as possible to work through the issues that have led to an 0-5 conference start has spent the last three weeks isolated from each other.
What are the head coach’s expectations for the rest of the season?
“I’m hoping to see steps in the right direction as we get back to competing,” Hoiberg said. “I’m a realist here, so I know we’re not going to go out and play our best game of the year on Saturday. It’s just not realistic to think that we can do that after the amount of time we’ve had off. But what I want to see is us continuing to grow and continuing to get better, even in these practices this week …
“We’re not going to have a lot of practice time after this week. It’s going to be short days, a lot of mental preparation because we’re going to have to have fresh minds and fresh bodies heading into these games. I just want to see us progressing in the right direction … If we go out there and play hard and compete, hopefully the wins will take care of themselves and we can get a few of these early to get ourselves some confidence.”
Hopefully the wins come, but at this point it’s hard to judge this team based on its record. With the early struggles and the giant gap in the middle of the schedule, this year feels almost like a wash. What’s important now is taking those steps in the right direction Hoiberg spoke about. The biggest thing the Huskers need to do is to avoid letting frustration seep in and derail what Hoiberg wants them to do.
The last five or so weeks are going to be about guys learning how they all fit together moving forward. Who are going to be the key pieces Hoiberg builds around heading into 2021-22? How do all these guys fit together? This team is better than last year’s even if the results may not totally reflect that just yet, but Nebraska can’t afford for the same kind of quiet improvement next year. The Huskers need to take a big step forward and put some wins on the board, and that starts with this next five weeks.
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.