Fred Hoiberg made a bold move this week, choosing to bench Jervay Green and roll with an eight-man rotation against Iowa that included freshman walk-on guard Charlie Easley. The move paid off as the Huskers beat the Hawkeyes 76-70 to improve to 2-2 in Big Ten play.
Easley played a career-high 16 minutes and was the only perimeter sub who go off the bench in the second half. He scored just one point, splitting a pair of free throws and missing all three of his 3-point attempts, but he grabbed a rebound, recorded two steals and made a few other hustle plays that didn’t end up in the box score.
"It was just a decision I made before the game,” Hoiberg said after the win. “Went back to the rotation where we played two of our better games of the season against Purdue and against Indiana and had a talk with [Green] before the game that that was the direction that I was going to go in this one.
“Again, the guys went out there and I thought everybody that stepped on the floor made a contribution tonight. I thought Charlie Easley made some unbelievable hustle plays. That play where he dove on the floor was the loudest it got in the building all night. But Charlie, even though he didn't hit his shots, I thought had a huge impact on that win and again made unbelievable hustle plays out there.”
The two games Hoiberg mentioned were the ones Green missed while serving a suspension for a violation of team rules. The Huskers lost at Indiana in overtime and beat Purdue at home with Green not in uniform. Seeing what the Huskers looked like with Green probably made this move easier for Hoiberg, but all the numbers point to it probably being the right move regardless.
Green has really, really struggled in Lincoln. He’s shooting 36.2 percent from the field including 43.9% at the rim and 30% from 3. He’s also tied for second on the team in turnovers despite playing in three fewer games than the rest of the Huskers. The only players who shoot the ball more often per-40 minutes are Dachon Burke Jr. and Kevin Cross Jr.
According to the numbers, Nebraska has been better on both sides of the ball with Green on the bench.
So what does that mean moving forward? Hoiberg didn’t say after the game whether Green’s benching was a long-term thing or if it was limited to just the Iowa game. We’ll find out either from Hoiberg during his pre-game media availability on Friday or during the Huskers’ game at Northwestern on Saturday.
Even amid his struggles this season, Green has shown flashes of the athleticism and shot-making that made him a highly-regarded recruit coming out of Western Nebraska Community College. Hoiberg saw enough on film to make him a priority after signing his contract to become Nebraska’s new coach, making a trip out to Scottsbluff shortly after his introductory press conference to meet with Green.
Unless Green totally shuts down, he’s too talented to completely give up on, and Nebraska could still use him. This is the same guy who put up 23.6 pints and 5.3 assists per game while shooting 39% from 3 on high volume as a sophomore at Western Nebraska.
Cam Mack and Haanif Cheatham are second and third, respectively, in the Big Ten in minutes per game, and their averages are up even more in conference play. Mack has played in 151 of 160 total minutes in four Big Ten games while Haanif Cheatham has played 144 minutes. Both Burke and Thorir Thorbjarnarson — who replaced Green in the starting lineup following his suspension and who has been playing at a high level — are averaging over 30 minutes per game in conference play as well. Those minute might start to weight on the guys as we get deeper into the season.
Nebraska could really use another ball-handler and playmaker to lessen the burden on Mack in particular. I think Easley’s shown enough to continue to get some clock each game — nothing fires up the crowd like a good Charlie Easley box-out — but at this point he’s more of an off-ball player.
How Green handles this benching will be fascinating to follow. He’s an emotional player, and it seems like his struggles have weighed on him at times. He looked to be in good spirits on the bench on Tuesday, however, cheering on his teammates as they pulled off the upset without him. Hoiberg doesn’t owe Green anything — his job is to win games and he has to go with the players that give him the best chance to do that. That means it’s on Green to prove to Hoiberg that he can help the team.
The transition from junior college to Division I is a difficult one, and it often takes players half a season to a full year to make that adjustment. You can see at times that Green is trying things that might have worked at a lower level that he just hasn’t been able to pull off against his current competition (I think that’s part of his low percentage around the rim). He’s used to having the ball in his hands and that’s just not going to happen at Nebraska with Mack running the show and Hoiberg’s offense relying on a lot of ball movement. So when Green does get the ball, he feels like he has to do something with it, which has led to a lot of bad 3-point attempts early in the possession.
Green was essentially the team’s back-up point guard, running the show in the brief stretches that Mack spent on the bench, but other than that he’s played mostly off the ball. He has to adjust to that role and buy into it, and perhaps more offensive success will follow.
Defense is just as much of a problem, however. Hoiberg has spoken highly of Green’s defensive ability in the past. He’s got a strong frame and terrific athleticism. Physically the talent is there to be a good defender. But the effort and attention to detail just hasn’t been there and he’s hurt them. Whether it’s getting caught ball-watching away from the action or it’s gambling on the ball and giving up driving lanes, he’s been a liability. If Green can fix his issues on defense, I think it will buy him some time to figure things out on the other end.
Fred Hoiberg made the tough call to bench a key rotation player in Jervay Green against Iowa, and it worked out in his favor. Now he’s got another difficult choice on his hands: what does Green’s role look like moving forward? Does he give the junior guard another chance, or does he stick with the short bench? I guess we’ll find out on Saturday.