Just what kind of team is Nebraska? What is this team’s identity? I’m not really sure, and I’m not sure Tim Miles does either.
After Thursday’s 70-64 loss to No. 6 Michigan State, Nebraska is sitting at 13-5 on the season and 3-4 in the Big Ten. They’re ranked 12th on KenPom.com, but they’ve gone 0-4 against the top four teams they’ve played according to KenPom’s rankings. Their only top-40 win is over No. 33 Indiana.
Miles’ teams have been more defensive-minded throughout his tenure in Lincoln, but this season, Nebraska has actually been better on offense. KenPom has the Huskers 12th in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency and only 28th in adjusted defensive efficiency. In fact, Nebraska was one of the worst defensive teams in the Big Ten through its first four conference games.
The Huskers rediscovered their defensive roots in wins against Penn State and No. 25 Indiana, but the offense hit a rough patch against the Hoosiers (that lasted almost nine minutes) and didn’t really show up at all against Michigan State.
The Huskers shot a season-low 32.8 percent from the field and that includes a crazy rally in the last two minutes that made the final score look a little better than it should have been. Michigan State pulled ahead by 12 before easing off the gas, and the Huskers hit five of their final eight shots (including their only 3-pointer of the second half) to pull within four before losing by six.
Michigan State is a terrific defensive team, ranked eighth in adjusted defensive efficiency by KenPom. The only other team in the same ballpark defensively that Nebraska has played is Texas Tech (No. 1 in adjusted defensive efficiency), who handed the Huskers their first loss of the season back on Nov. 20, 70-52.
There’s no shame in struggling to score against Michigan State; pretty much every team it faces is going to have a bad day. However, heading into Thursday, the Spartans were allowing 66.8 points per game on 36.9 percent from the field and 30.9 percent from 3. The Huskers finished below their average in all three — 64 points, 32.8 percent from the field and 19.2 percent from 3.
Nebraska really struggled to generate good looks early in possessions, which led to a lot of late hero-ball or contested 3-pointers with the shot clock winding down. And when they did get to the rim, they struggled to finish.
“We were 12-for-26 at the rim,” Miles said after the loss. “Usually two-thirds of those are probably going in at a minimum, so it’s just hard to overcome a night like that. Then you’re 5-for-26 from 3. We did have four or five probably rattle in and out, but you can’t have both.”
The Red Raiders are allowing 54.8 points on 38 percent shooting and 25.2 percent from deep. Against them, the Huskers only managed to score 52 points 35.4 percent shooting and 21.7 percent from 3. One can point to these games as isolated incidents against elite defensive teams, and that is partially true, but we’ve seen these kind of struggles from Nebraska time and time again.
“Each and every night we go out we just try to show we can compete with anybody in the country,” James Palmer Jr. said after the Michigan State loss. “Shouts out to them, they’re a really good team but I think we were right there with them. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
The Huskers weren’t able to get over the hump against Texas Tech, or against Maryland, or against Iowa. The did so against Indiana, but despite the Hoosiers’ ranking in the AP poll, KenPom only has Indiana ranked as the fifth-best team Nebraska has played at No. 33, two spots behind the Hawkeyes.
Perhaps part of that failure to get over the hump is Palmer himself. Against those top-five teams (Michigan State, Texas Tech, Maryland, Iowa and Indiana) the preseason All-Big Ten pick has gotten his points, but it’s been more through sheer volume than truly great play.
Palmer averaged 18.8 points with three 20-point performances in those games, but he shot just 36.3 percent in them including 21.2 percent from 3 (on nearly seven attempts per game). Palmer got to the free-throw line a ton in those 20-point games (11, 13 and 11 attempts) but he took a combined two free throws in the other two games and totaled 24 points on 25 shots because of it. He dished out 19 assists (3.8 per game) in those five games, but he turned the ball over just as many times.
Palmer has to be more efficient, full stop. Nebraska’s offense has to be better in big games, and it starts with him.
The Huskers still have a handful more games against elite defenses left on their schedule: Michigan (third in defense, sixth overall on KenPom), Wisconsin (14th in defense, 17th overall) and Ohio State (20th in defense, 27th overall) as well as rematches with Michigan State and Maryland. That’s a good thing — it means Nebraska still has plenty more opportunities for résumé-building wins. However, the Huskers have to find a way to actually win those games for that to matter.
“We’re lucky,” Miles said. “Last year, we had one more opportunity for a quad one game, and that was at Ohio State at this time. We had had Michigan at home and we beat them. And then we were done; there wasn’t another one on the schedule. We have five or six more this year. We have a lot of games like this where we’re going to have to rise to the occasion. Tonight, we didn’t.”
Whatever Nebraska decides its identity is, the Huskers are going to need both their offense and their defense to show up in order to win big games, and they need to win some of these big games in order to earn a good seed in the NCAA Tournament.
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.