After Nebraska completed its nonconference schedule with a blowout win over Southwest Minnesota State last week, I asked Tim Miles if there was anything he learned about his team that he didn’t know heading into the season.
One of the things he cited was the team’s depth.
“I’m feeling better about our depth,” Miles said. “I just feel like guys are doing all right and they’re picking it up. We’ve got to get Brady [Heiman] back in there, especially if Isaiah’s out, and get him up to speed. So as we look at this, I’m happy with where our depth is.”
Miles followed that statement up by playing just three players off the bench, only one of which played more than nine minutes. In the second half, senior center Tanner Borchardt was the only player to get off the bench as all three perimeter starters went the full 20. Where was that depth Miles was feeling better about?
To be fair, freshman guard Amir Harris has been out with mono over the last month, so that’s one less guy off the bench available to Miles. That being said, Harris wasn’t playing big minutes and has scored 13 points total this season.
This season, Nebraska’s starters have played 73.9 percent of Nebraska’s minutes and scored 81.7 percent of its scoring. If you take out the three complete blowout over two of the worst Division I teams in the country (Mississippi Valley State and Southeastern Louisiana) and a Division II team (Southwest Minnesota State), those numbers rise to 78.9 percent of the minutes and 86.9 percent of the scoring from the starters (and that includes two games in which Thomas Allen came off the bench).
Nebraska has one of the better starting fives you’ll find, but replying on that unit to carry such a heavy work load throughout conference play seems like a big ask to me. Out of 14 games, James Palmer Jr. has played 37 or more minutes four times, Glynn Watson Jr. has hit that mark three times, Isaac Copland twice and Isaiah Roby once. Allen has hit 36 minutes in a game a few times.
A closer look at Nebraska’s games against other high-major teams shows that Nebraska’s shot bench gets even shorter.
Nebraska used a late run to turn its game against Seton Hall into a 23-point win, but Miles only went four deep into his bench. Three players played between 10 and 12 minutes per game with Harris playing just over seven. Nebraska got five bench points in that game.
Against Texas Tech, Miles called just three players off his bench: Nana Akenten (10 minutes), Amir Harris (nine minutes) and Tanner Borchardt (five minutes). No playing time for freshman big man Brady Heiman. Three bench points.
At Clemson, Miles went four deep again. Borchardt got 16 minutes and Akenten 13, but the freshmen combined for nine as Nebraska pulled out a two-point win. Eight bench points.
Against Illinois, it was a similar story. This time Borchardt (15), Akenten (13) and Harris (11) all got double-figure minutes but Heiman got just two in a 15-point victory. Six bench points.
Miles kept the nine-man rotation at Minnesota. This time, Heiman led the Huskers off the bench with 15 minutes and accounted for nine of their 12 bench points. Akenten got 11 minutes, Borchardt seven and Harris just three.
Nebraska shot the lights out and stretched its lead over Creighton up past 20 for good late, which led the Miles emptying his bench with 1:13 to play, but the rotation was pretty tight before then again despite the Huskers having control most of the way. Akenten finished with 15 minutes, Borchardt 11 and Heiman 10. The Creighton game was the first one Harris missed. Nebraska got seven points off its bench in that game.
Oklahoma State was another game that went form in doubt to garbage time in a hurry late. Akenten started and played 16 minutes while Allen came off the bench to play 27 minutes after dealing with a stomach virus in the days leading up to the game. Borchardt played 13 minutes and everyone else off the bench played less than five minutes. Nebraska got 22 points off is bench but 18 of those are from Allen.
And that brings us to Wednesday’s game.
In the first half, Palmer played 18 minutes and Allen, Copeland and Roby each played 16 minutes. Watson picked up two fouls, so he only got 10 minutes in the first half. Borchardt played 13 minutes and contributed four points and two boards. Akenten played nine minutes and missed both of his shots. Heiman played two minutes and picked up three fouls. We didn’t see the latter two in the second half while Borchardt was the only sub and got six minutes, scoring two more times to finish with eight points.
So, Tim, if you’re feeling so good about that bench, where is it?
That bench is shallow, young and inexperienced (outside of Borchardt who is a former walk-on), so it’s not hard to see why Miles might have his trepidations about playing those guys if the game is in doubt.
Riding your starters in any given game is just fine. Most Division I basketball players should be able to handle that. That being said, is Miles going to continue to do so against every decent team the Huskers run into in conference play? Because nearly all of them qualify as that or better, and there are still two more months to go in the regular season. I’m not going to pretend to know what guys like Palmer and Copeland can or cannot handle, but those guys wearing down by the end of the season seems like a reasonable thing to worry about.
Each of the guys on that bench — even Thorir Thorbjarnarson who isn’t part of the normal rotation but has gotten couple of chances recently — has shown some really good things at times. It seems like there’s some upside worth attempting to tap into there.
If Nebraska hopes to be playing its best basketball come March, I think Miles probably needs to show more trust in that bench, both to save the legs of his starters and to give the freshmen and sophomores a chance to learn and grow. Miles is in practice every day and he sees all the mistakes those guys make during film review, and I’m sure that plays a big part in why he hasn’t given them opportunities, but I think it’s a risk worth taking for the long-term development of the team.
The starters are going to carry Nebraska a long way this season, but if a couple of guys off the bench can ease some of that burden, it should only help Nebraska finish the season strong.
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.