With the offseason rolling in, I’m going to begin writing a weekly column about whatever is on my mind. If you know me at all, more often than not that will be basketball, as it is with this first edition. Welcome to Padding the Stats.
When I say “Nebrasketball,” what is the first thing that pops into your head?
With recent events, “transfer” is probably up there for many of you. Perhaps Tim Miles’ job status is up there as well. That doesn’t exactly reflect well on the state of the program.
What about the on-court product? What kind of basketball does “Nebrasketball” bring to mind? I’m drawing a blank. Let’s take a look at some numbers from the Tim Miles era to see if we can find a pattern.
Well, can you find one? Wait, let me rephrase that: can you find a positive trend that shows a consistent strength? Something the coaches can sell recruits on and rely on to win games? I’m not seeing it.
Once upon a time, Tim Miles’ prided his program on strong, pack-line man-to-man defense. But that has slipped over the last couple of years. The Huskers have been one of the worst teams in the country at defending 3-pointers (an admittedly noisy statistic) the last two years and gave up 73 points per game this past season. For the third time in five years under Miles, Nebraska gave up more points than it scored. So the Huskers can’t claim to be a dominant defensive team in the way someone like Virginia can.
So what about offense? It’s… not pretty. The most consistent trends are lack of ball movement (check the low assist totals) and lack of perimeter shooting (34.7 percent is the best mark under Miles and most of that was from Andrew White III who shot 41.2 percent and accounted for more than a third of the team’s makes). As a result of those two categories more than anything else, the Huskers have finished in the bottom 100 of the country in scoring average.
So the Huskers aren’t a lock-down defensive team, they don’t move the ball and they don’t shoot well. The one calling card for this year’s team was offensive rebounding (top 50 in the country) but the Huskers lost the two players who were most responsible for that figure in Ed Morrow Jr. and Michael Jacobson via transfer.
I’ve watched almost every Nebrasketball game over the past two years and I can’t tell you what “Nebraska basketball” looks like. If that’s the case, how can you sell that to recruits? Perhaps that’s one reason for why Miles and his staff have struggled so much to recruit a full, balanced roster.
There is no doubt that Miles has upgraded Nebraska’s talent, at least according to recruiting ratings. However, it has not yielded more wins and now Miles is having trouble retaining those players. I think part of that falls back on the roster construction.
Ever since he’s arrived in Lincoln, Miles and his staff have struggled to accumulate either sufficient depth or starting-caliber talent at every position. After striking out at center for the most part over the past couple of years, the Huskers finally landed a viable big-man prospect in Jordy Tshimanga. However, they weren’t able to secure any depth which forced Morrow and Jacobson to play more center than they seemingly liked, which likely played a part in their decisions to transfer.
The Huskers have also struggled to recruit backcourt playmakers with Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr. as the only players consistently capable of making plays for themselves and others off the bounce. Now, Webster is gone and Watson is the only point guard on the roster.
Taking a look at Nebraska’s recent recruiting should be a source of optimism for Husker fans, though. On Friday, the Huskers landed a huge commitment in 2017 4-star guard Thomas Allen, a dynamic shooter who can also handle the ball and make plays. Add in Nebraska’s other 2017 commit in Nana Akenten, a 6-foot-6 sharp-shooter, and transfers Isaac Copeland and James Palmer Jr. who are both expected to be plus shooters and Watson’s improvement (team-best 39.3 percent from 3), and the Huskers suddenly have some viable perimeter shooting.
Allen and Palmer are also expected to supplement Watson’s playmaking as both guards can make plays for themselves and others off the bench. Shooting and passing have been the biggest source of Nebraska’s offensive struggles, and the Huskers are addressing those areas.
Nebraska has some pieces. Now it is up to Tim Miles and his staff to put them together and forge an identity on the court. They need to find a style of play that the players can buy into and that they can sell to the fans and future recruits. Until Nebraska finds that identity, the Huskers will continue to struggle regardless of how many “stars” they bring in.
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.