Thirteen games into the season, Nebraska has started to figure a lot of things out. The Huskers are getting big scoring games from James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr. and Isaac Copeland. They’re getting strong perimeter shooting from Evan Taylor and Anton Gill. They’re getting terrific all-around play from Isaiah Roby off the bench. The overall team defense, especially on the perimeter (Wednesday’s game aside) has been improved from last season.
There remains one gaping hole for this team: the center position.
In a combined 24.1 minutes per game, Nebraska is getting 3.9 points and 7.1 rebounds per game on 34.4 percent shooting from sophomore Jordy Tshimanga and senior Duby Okeke.
Nebraska is shooting 46.4 percent inside the arc (310th in the country) and a big part of that is that Nebraska doesn’t get a lot of easy looks around the rim from the big men.
Tshimanga showed some flashes of his potential down the stretch last season with a few double-digit scoring games and overall more efficient play. He’s started every game this season, but not only has he not built off of the end of last season, he seems to have regressed. Through 13 games, Tshimanga has taken 48 field goals and 17 free throws in order to get to 40 points.
Coach Tim Miles has yet to make a change, however, and it seems like he is doing all he can to give Tshimanga a chance to figure things out.
In 10 of the 13 games to this point, the Huskers have gone inside to Tshimanga within the first three possessions. The results? Tshimanga has gone 2-of-10 from the field with six turnovers while dishing out one assist and splitting a pair of free throws.
Nebraska keeps trying to force-feed Tshimanga in the post, but it’s simply not working. He doesn’t have the skill set, touch or confidence to make that a viable option, and Nebraska is often starting out in a hole because of it.
The post touch needs to be scrapped. Stop calling plays for Tshimanga. Use him as a screener, a weak side dump-off option and offensive rebounder.
Miles admitted they need to focus on doing just that with both Tshimanga and Okeke.
“Getting layups, just positioning to get layups, not so many post moves over somebody; that’s a difficult shot to make for anybody,” Miles said. “But easier said than done … We’ve got to get them easier shots.”
Wednesday’s win against UTSA is a perfect microcosm of this. The Huskers got Tshimanaga the ball on each of their first five possessions.
On the first play, Nebraska fed him the ball on the block and he traveled trying to make a move.
On the next one, Tshimanga actually sealed a defender fronting him and the Huskers lobbed it over the top to him, earning him a trip to the free-throw line where he split the shots.
On the third play, Tshimanga lost the ball in traffic.
On the fourth, he caught the ball and tried to put a move on the defender, going baseline for a reverse that he bricked off the backboard.
On the fifth possessions, Tshimanga faced up and skip-passed to the opposite corner for an open 3-point shot (which didn’t go in).
Later in the game, the Huskers got Tshimanga point-blank looks on back-to-back possessions in the flow of the offense, and he finished both. Tshimanga scored on three possessions where he caught the ball at the rim, and went scoreless in every other situation.
“There’s no doubt there’s a little bit of a crisis of confidence with Jordy,” Miles said. “But he’s got such a great attitude and he’s a willing and eager learner that he comes in every time ready to go every practice.”
Continuing to put Tshimanga in a position to fail isn’t the way to give him confidence. If Nebraska wants to get some production out of Tshimanga, the Huskers have to make the game easy for him.
“We’re in this together,” senior guard Evan Taylor said. “I want to see him do well just like I want to see all my teammates do well. Just because he’s not playing as well as everybody knows he can right now, I just tell him, ‘Just keep going, keep going,’ because you never know, tomorrow could be his break-through game and he could take off running from that. In sports, you just have to keep working hard no matter what — you’re playing well, you’re playing bad, just keep working hard.”
It has become clear that Nebraska is at its best with Copeland and Roby playing together in a small-ball frontcourt, and the time to invest more heavily in that lineup could be fast approaching. However, if Nebraska gives up on Tshimanga, it will significantly lower the team’s ceiling.
To accomplish its goals this season, Nebraska needs production from Tshimanga. The Huskers need the option of a bigger body inside to match up with some of the teams the Huskers will play in the Big Ten. But Tshimanga can’t hurt his team while he’s out there.
Nebraska will have two more nonconference games with which to experiment starting with Friday’s game against Delaware State. Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 7:01 p.m.