Nebraska’s roster has undergone a significant shift since last season.
For most of last year, the Huskers started the 6-foot-7 Ed Morrow and the 6-foot-9 Michael Jacobson in the frontcourt, both of whom are more traditional, bigger-bodied posts who struggled to guard in space.
Morrow was a good athlete, but his lack of positional size – especially at center – caused him issues while Jacobson wasn’t gifted with great length or quickness. Isaiah Roby, a true freshman, only played 15.2 minutes per game. Jack McVeigh, a 6-foot-8 tweener forward who is solid in help but struggles to guard the ball, was playing 22.4 minutes per game.
Nebraska didn’t have much in the way of rim protection or switchable defenders, and as a result they surrendered 73 points per game overall (203rd in the country) and 76.4 (12th) in the Big Ten.
Both Morrow and Jacobson transferred over the offseason, but Isaac Copeland, a 6-foot-9 transfer from Georgetown, became eligible and Winthrop graduate transfer Duby Okeke joined the team. Miami transfer James Palmer, a 6-foot-6 wing, also became eligible, adding more length on the perimeter.
Copeland was rated as a 5-star prospect coming out of high school and offers more length and athleticism at the four spot than they had last season. He’s capable of switching onto guards if need be and is a strong weak side help defender.
Okeke hasn’t played major minutes, but he sports a team-best 11.5 block percentage which would be third in the conference if he qualified behind suspended Minnesota center Reggie Lynch and Michigan State projected lottery pick Jaren Jackson Jr.
Palmer’s biggest contributions come on offense, but he also provides something on the wing they didn’t have last year with size, length and mobility. His 1.5 block percentage was far better than any of the perimeter players on last year’s squad.
With more length and athleticism up and down the lineup, the Huskers’ defensive efficiency has taken a big leap this season. Nebraska is allowing 69.4 points per game (110th nationally) and they have improved that number to 66.6 in Big Ten play, good for fifth in the league.
Nebraska’s length in the passing lanes and at the rim has caused all sorts of problems for opponents. Through 21 games, the Huskers were 16th nationally at 5.8 blocks per game while also grabbing 6.6 steals per contest.
In the Big Ten, the Huskers are at 5.8 blocks and 6.1 steals, both top-five in the league. Put them together and Nebraska is second in the league in stocks (steals plus blocks) at 11.9 behind only Penn State’s 12.4 average.
Roby has garnered a much larger role this season at 21 minutes per game overall and 24.3 in conference. He has started at center over the last two games and has been a defensive dynamo all season with a team-best 2.6 stocks per game. His front court partner in that small-ball lineup, Copeland, isn’t far behind at 2.0 stocks.
In total, Nebraska has three players averaging at least one block and three averaging at least one steal.
That aggressiveness defensively has shown itself in the opposition’s shooting percentages as well. In conference play, Nebraska is holding teams to 43.7 percent inside the arc (fourth) and 27.6 percent from 3 (first). That latter statistic is one of the biggest reasons for Nebraska’s turnaround from 6-12 in conference last year to 5-3 this season. Opponents shot 42.5 percent from 3 in 2016-17, dead last in the league.
In addition to the roster changes, Nebraska also altered its defensive scheme, shifting from a strict pack-line defense that plays off shooters to take away driving lanes to what Coach Tim Miles calls a “modified pack-line.” The results speak for themselves, particularly in Nebraska’s first win against Michigan since joining the Big Ten that went down last Thursday.
Nebraska has become really good at forcing misses. The only problem with that is to get possession the team still has to grab the rebounds those misses create. Nebraska actually sits at sixth in the conference in defensive rebounds at the moment at 25.5 per game.
However, the Huskers are dead last in the league in defensive rebound percentage as they have surrendered 116 offensive boards on 320 total rebound opportunities. On average, Nebraska will only grab roughly two out of every three defensive rebounds available.
“Defensive rebounding is a big thing for us,” Miles said. “I think our guys know that our defense is good, and rebounding is a separate skill. If we could end possessions earlier, I can’t imagine how good our defense would be.”
An uptick in minutes for its smaller lineups and aggressively chasing after blocks can open up the offensive glass for opponents, so some of the issues are a trade-off Nebraska will take. Even so, the rebounding has to improve and it is going to have to be a team effort.
After stumbling through the last few years, Nebrasketball once again has an identity. If the Huskers can pair this in-your-face defense with better rebounding, Nebraska should be in every game with a chance to win the rest of the season.
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.