Expectations for Nebraska basketball this season are higher than ever before, and with that, the impact of every win and every loss seems magnified to the nth degree based on what I’ve seen from fans after games.
Nebraska’s loss at Rutgers on Monday was an opportunity for those that don’t believe in Coach Tim Miles to voice their displeasure, and boy did they. The team — and Miles himself — certainly did deserve some heat after the way the Huskers performed in Piscataway. A team with tournament aspirations should not lose to that Scarlet Knights team, especially the way they did. Miles said on Sports Nightly on Wednesday that he didn’t have his guys ready to play, for whatever reason.
But even so, the loss doesn’t have to be a major blow to Nebraska’s tournament hopes. It was Nebraska’s first and only bad loss of the season — all five of Nebraska’s previous losses were quadrant one losses.
This sets up an important four-game stretch for Nebraska in which the Huskers have a lot of work to do. As things stand, Nebraska’s wins break down as follows: two quadrant one, four quadrant two (with one bordering on being quadrant three), two quadrant three and four quadrant four. Nebraska’s two quadrant one wins are at Clemson and at Indiana, and both of those teams are trending in the wrong direction.
Nebraska has zero signature wins (ones that will look really good when the committee takes a closer look) and one bad loss right now. Fortunately for the Huskers, they’ve got nothing but quadrant one and two games remaining on their schedule, at least based on where teams are currently ranked in the NET. Nebraska went 2-5 in its first seven quadrant one games. It has seven more, and it can’t repeat that kind of success rate.
Focusing in on these next four, Nebraska can and probably should win all four. If they can do that, their resume will start to look pretty good, and it means they probably addressed some of the issues that have produced the team’s recent struggles.
First up is a home game against an Ohio State team that had a great nonconference but has lost five straight in the Big Ten. Then the Huskers host a defensively-sound Wisconsin team after that. A trip to Champaign to take on the Illini for a second time this season awaits after that then Nebraska returns home for a rematch against Maryland.
The Ohio State and Illinois games are more about keeping losses off their record, while the Wisconsin and Maryland games are two chances at signature quadrant one wins. Nebraska needs all four of them, because they’ve already missed out on so many opportunities to this point. If the Huskers lose to both the Badgers and the Terps, the Huskers are looking at needing to potentially sweep both games against Purdue, take at least one game from either Michigan or Michigan State (both on the road) and beat Iowa on Senior Day to produce the kind of resume that will get the Huskers the kind of NCAA Tournament seed they want.
Miles said on Sports Nightly that he feels his team has only played one-and-half good games in Big Ten play so far. He liked their defensive performance against Michigan State and he thought they played well at Indiana.
One-and-a-half out of eight isn’t close to good enough. The Huskers have to get back to playing the way that got them rated so highly in the computers (they’re currently 14th in KenPom and rated among the top-30 nationally on both sides of the ball).
Nebraska has to show a lot more fire. Personally, I’m starting to wonder how much fatigue is playing into Nebraska’s inability to hit shots or rebound, particularly down the stretch of close games. All five starters are averaging more than 30 minutes per game in conference play led by James Palmer Jr. at 37.8 and Glynn Watson Jr. at 34.1. Miles is worried about his starters’ minutes as well.
“We’ve got to get our depth going again,” Miles said. “I need to get Brady [Heiman] back in the game, give him some reps and opportunity. We’ve got to stay out of foul trouble with those upper guys and we need more minutes out of more size. Then we need those other guys like Amir [Harris] and Nana [Akenten] to get productive again too.”
Miles has said that before about Heiman, yet the freshman still hasn’t seen any change in his playing time. He did not play against Rutgers. Against Michigan State, he played two minutes without recording a stat. At Indiana, he played one minute, went over a Hoosier’s back for a foul trying to grab an offensive rebound and immediately checked back out for good. He did not play against Penn State. He played nine minutes against Iowa, recording one assist and one foul. Against Maryland, he committed three fouls in two minutes and took a seat for the rest of the game.
Miles just hasn’t displayed any confidence in Heiman whatsoever, and the freshman hasn’t really given him a reason to in his brief opportunities. I’m not convinced playing Heiman more is the solution unless he can get back to playing like he did against Minnesota (nine points and five rebounds in 15 minutes).
Miles is right that they need more production out of Akenten. The sophomore who served as a spark plug off the bench during the nonconference is averaging just 2.5 points in 12.4 minutes in Big Ten play. He’s 2-of-14 from 3. That isn’t going to cut it, especially considering he’s not a plus defender.
Harris, on the other hand, remains intriguing to me. Miles has slow-played him since his return from the bout of mono that kept him out for a month and caused him to lose 20 pounds. He has yet to log a single second of action in the second half since his return and he’s only seen 10 minutes total since his return.
“It’s just hard to re-start your season in the middle of it and that’s what he needs to do,” Miles said. “I thought that (Harris’ transition bucket against Rutgers) was a good step forward.”
Harris was never going to be a big offensive contributor this season in large part because of his lack of an effective jump shot, but there are there things he can bring to the table. I’d like to see Miles give Harris a few more minutes here and there in place of Palmer or Watson. Harris isn’t going to create offense, but he is going to defend, rebound and run the floor, and if you pair that with the likes of Palmer or Watson or Thomas Allen Jr. or Isaac Copeland Jr., I believe Nebraska should still have enough offense to tread water at the very least, and buying the upperclassmen a few more minutes of rest here and there could pay dividends down the road. I say give the kid a chance and live with the mistakes.
Nebraska still has plenty of time and plenty of opportunity to achieve its lofty goals, but something has to change and it has to change fast. The Huskers have get back to playing winning basketball. These next four games should tell us whether or not they’re capable of that.
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.