Nebraska basketball is in a bad place right now.
The Huskers have lost four straight games, three of them on their home court. After spending most of the season ranked inside the top 10 on KenPom in adjusted offensive efficiency, the Huskers have spiraled down to 25th overall recently (and it would be much, much worse if one were to isolate the recent stretch of games).
Since shooting 45 percent from the field in a 66-51 win at Indiana (still not a great showing), the Huskers have cracked 40 percent just once, a 41.7 percent effort at Rutgers. In their last three home games, the Huskers have shot 32.8 percent (against Michigan State), 36.2 percent (against Ohio State) and 28.3 percent (against Wisconsin).
Losing Isaac Copeland Jr. was certainly a crushing blow, one that may prove too much to overcome. But Copeland was healthy for two-and-a-half of those games and the Huskers still couldn’t find a way to field a competent offense.
At this point, I think we know what we’re going to get from that bench, which is next to nothing — Nana Akenten has missed his last 11 3s, Brady Heiman has scored in a grand total of one Big Ten game, Amir Harris barely plays and has no jump shot and Thorir Thorbjarnarson wasn’t even in the picture until the Wisconsin game. Tanner Borchardt serves his role filling in as the fifth starter in Copeland’s place, but he is only the most opportunistic of scorers.
The burden of scoring the ball falls on the four healthy starters. This team will only go so far as that group can take it, and they haven’t taken it very far in the last couple of weeks.
In Nebraska’s last four games, the foursome of James Palmer Jr., Glynn Watson Jr., Isaiah Roby and Thomas Allen Jr. have combined to score 190 points on 184 field goal attempts and 66 free throw attempts with 34 assists and 31 turnovers. That is atrocious efficiency from the team’s best players, so it’s no surprise that Nebraska hasn’t been able to score at a respectable rate.
Derek Peterson covered how much trouble Nebraska has had at the rim recently, and part of that probably has to do with a lack of spacing. Nebraska’s 3-point shooting was a serious problem in two of the last four (5-of-26 against Michigan State, 4-of-20 against Wisconsin), and the Huskers have been pretty mediocre (to put it kindly) from deep overall in conference play at 31.8 percent. How does Nebraska improve that mark?
“I think share the ball more and not so many quick shots,” Coach Tim Miles said after the Wisconsin game. “Too many shots, too many quick possessions — one, two passes into a 3 or into a 2. It was one of those nights. We’ve got the ability — it’s like we’re either 9-for-20 or 4-for-23. I think when they are quick, it hurts us.”
The Huskers have 40 assists and 41 turnovers in the last four, and while the shots have to fall to get an assist, it’s not like Nebraska is great at moving the ball. That certainly has to improve.
But at the end of the day (or, I guess, at the end of the shot clock), the responsibility is on those core four players to lead the way offensively. Against Wisconsin, Palmer had 14 points on 5-of-19 from the field and 3-of-4 from the line with one assist and one turnover. Watson had his worst game of the season with five points on 2-of-10 shooting, one assist and one turnover. Nebraska can’t afford those kinds of performances from their senior guards because without Copeland, there simply aren’t enough players left to pick up the offensive slack.
“I have to watch why James didn’t have a good shooting night a little bit,” Miles said. “With G, we’ve just got to get him rolling again because they don’t have to feel that burden, they don’t have to try to do too much. There’s no cape, there’s no Superman. If you’re an alter-ego, remember you’re Batman, not Superman.”
Miles wants his guys to play smarter, not necessarily harder. They don’t have to do everything on every possession, but they do have to be better at what they’re doing.
Miles mentioned getting Watson going as a priority multiple times during the press conference. Over the last four, he’s averaging 11.3 points on 32.6 percent from the field and 27.3 percent from 3, 1.8 assists and 2.0 turnovers (down from 13.0 points on 43.6 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from 3 with 3.5 assists and 1.6 turnovers per game for the whole season).
“I’m going to watch some tape with him,” Miles said. “Usually he and I are best when we just sit down, watch tape and talk things out. Like, why is that a good shot? Let’s look at when you had it going earlier this game or that game. Let’s look at the last couple games, look at his shots, his assists, his turnovers and just kind of talk about that. I thought he passed on too many shots early when James attracted a whole bunch and threw it back to him and he just didn’t quite step into it. But that’s the way it goes sometimes.”
Palmer continues to get his buckets, averaging 19.8 points and 3.0 assists over his past four, but it continues to take him a ton of possessions to do so as it has all throughout conference play. He’s shooting 33.3 percent from the field (same as his overall conference percentage), 32 percent from 3 (a slight uptick) and a brutal 56.8 percent on just over nine free-throw attempts per game. He’s not playing anywhere close to an all-conference level.
Allen, too, is only making one out of every three shots over the last four and isn’t really making plays for others. He’s scoring 7.3 points per game, down from his season average of 8.5. Since I wrote about it being time to give him more responsibility, he’s given the Huskers less instead of more.
The one bright spot from the Wisconsin game, at least on the offensive end, was the play of Isaiah Roby. After four straight single-digit games, Roby stepped it up in Copeland’s absence and posted a game-high 18 points on 5-of-13 shooting (1-of-2 from 3) and 7-of-9 from the line with three assists and one turnover, and even better, he only committed three fouls.
“I thought Roby was better tonight; he was on the hop a little more, a little more aggressive,” Miles said. “I thought he played freely.”
He did stuff like this:
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) January 30, 2019
— Derek Peterson (@DrPeteyHV) January 30, 2019
He hit a 3 and a 2-point jumper off the dribble. He did miss one layup that I remember and a few put-back attempts, and that has to get better, but overall it was a very encouraging performance from the junior. Now they need it from him every game.
Miles has said he thinks his guys might be pressing a bit, and I’m sure that pressing only intensified after losing Copeland for the season. But that clearly isn’t working. Nebraska needs Palmer, Watson, Roby and Allen to carry a heavy offensive burden, but it doesn’t need them to try to be supermen. Miles has to find a way to get those guys settled down and playing to their strengths or Nebraska has no shot of turning this thing around. The defensive and rebounding effort was much better against the Badgers, but until the offense improves too the wins are not going to come.
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.