Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Focusing on the Little Things

January 19, 2022

The title for last week’s Nebraska Shootaround podcast was “The Little Things.” During the episode I went in-depth on what happened in the final four minutes that turned a tie game into a 10-point loss, and that title summed it up well.

Illinois wasn’t the first time those little things (like boxing out, communicating on defense, executing a set) cost Nebraska. In fact, that might be the most consistent thing about this team, and it’s why the record stands at 6-12 and 0-8 in conference play.

This team has put together stretches of really solid play throughout this season. The Huskers had the Buckeyes all but defeated before letting the game slip away, and they had a double-digit lead at N.C. State before, again, letting it slip away. They went toe-to-toe with the likes of Michigan State and Illinois. Yet they lost all those games, and it’s because they can’t sustain good play.

A rewatch (something I do after most games) reveals the degree to which this issue permeates the team. Almost everyone in the rotation is consistently at fault to various degrees, whether it be poor shot selection, lack of effort on the glass, failure to rotate on defense or any other number of things.

The way teams play is a result of how they prepare. Hall of Fame running back Tony Dorsett has a good quote that applies here: “I’m a strong believer that you practice like you play. Little things make big things happen.”

Fifth-year senior Kobe Webster went on the One-One-1 with DP show on 93.7 The Ticket in Lincoln on Tuesday and essentially confirmed that the way the team is practicing is leading to, or at least allowing, these bad habits that pop up in games. The whole conversation is worth listening to, but there were a couple key points that caught my attention.

First, Derrick Pearson asked him about the team’s rebounding woes, and part of his answer was about the drills they do in practice not carrying consequences for failure and not replicating game action. They focus on it plenty in the game-planning and film-watching phase of preparation, but that emphasis doesn’t translate to how the staff uses their time on the practice court. Webster went on to talk about practice more generally as well.

“We have the physical ability to do everything we need to do to win games,” Webster said. “It’s a mental aspect. Like having pride, or getting upset when your man scores, or getting upset when you give up a block-out or offensive rebound. Having that pride in practice and understanding how you practice is going to be how you play.”

The money segment of the show was the last six minutes or so. Pearson asked Webster if the team cares enough to make those necessary changes to get better.

“Up to this point, it may not look like it, but yes,” Webster said. “Once we set aside our individual agendas, that is going to be when the thing starts flowing. Honestly, we’ve been there. We took Ohio State to overtime. I think we’ve seen it. We’ve kind of just like teeter-tottered the fence. I’ve been saying it since the beginning, once you get one — just one — once you get one in the Big Ten, you just [exhales].”

Former Husker football player Vershan Jackson joined the program ahead of his own show and pushed even harder with the little things discussion. He asked how hard the team works on little things in practice, and who holds slackers accountable.

“To answer the first question, not hard enough, not emphasized enough,” Webster said. “I’ll leave it at that. Who is the guy? It’s a weird dynamic. I’m trying to figure out how to say this… I’ll say this because I’ve had this conversation with Coach, so this isn’t a secret. I told Coach, how can you expect another player — he always talks about player-led teams. How can you expect another player to hold his teammate accountable if the coaches don’t hold them accountable?”

Webster said they aren’t currently having those player-to-player discussions where the guy who messed up is receptive to the feedback. Thats as big a sign as the record that this program isn’t where it needs to be, and that has to change.

Early in the season, it felt to me like — with the way this team was constructed — if 3s started to fall things would start to click and the Huskers would have a chance to win games. Well, over the past seven games, Nebraska has shot 39.7% from deep. Bryce McGowens is 10-of-28 (35.7%), Keisei Tominaga is 12-26 (46.2%), C.J. Wilcher is 12-25 (48%) and Webster is 7-of-18 (38.9%). Hoiberg and his staff brought those guys to Lincoln because of their shooting prowess, and they’re finally hitting shots. Only Lat Mayen (7-of-23, 30.4%) continues to struggles. Even Alonzo Verge is 4-of-11 (36.4%) during that stretch.

Yet the only win in this seven game stretch came against Kennesaw State in the team’s nonconference finale. They’ve lost six straight Big Ten games since then. Hitting shots isn’t enough. The only way to turn things around is to put in the extra effort to do the little things, to beat teams with effort and execution and attention to detail. Nebraska isn’t going to be winning any Big Ten games based solely on talent at this point.

Trey McGowens made an immediate impact in that area in his return from a broken foot, and I’d say Derrick Walker has been the team’s most consistent performer. But McGowens isn’t going to fix things on his own and Walker’s steadiness cleary hasn’t spread throughout the team to this point. It starts with Bryce McGowens and Verge, the guys who touch the ball more than anyone else. Better decision-making on offense and more effort on defense would go a long way. Mayen needs to step it up as well as one of the team’s veterans and the only healthy power forward in the rotation.

The players have to step it up, but based on Webster’s interview that starts with the coaching staff. What they’ve done to this point clearly hasn’t worked, so perhaps it’s time to shake things up.

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