For the first time this season, we actually have a Nebrasketball result from which we can learn something. Nebraska took down the Seton Hall Pirates 80-57 on Wednesday night, using a second half run to turn a one-possession game into a blowout.
The Pirates were the first team with a pulse that Nebraska has played this season, and the Huskers took care of business. Based on what I saw last night, it looks like Seton Hall is in for a rebuilding year after losing most of their rotation from last year’s NCAA Tournament team, so I wouldn’t call that game a measuring stick for a much more talented Nebraska team. That being said, it was a much needed step up in competition as the schedule gradually ramps up heading into the Clemson game at the end of the month.
The first thing that has become clear is Nebraska’s defense is absolutely for real. The Huskers have allowed just 37, 35 and 57 points in three games so far, and that isn’t a result of slowing things down as the Huskers are slightly above average in terms of pace.
Teams just haven’t been able to score against the Huskers at any level. According to HoopMath.com, teams are shooting 24.4 percent at the rim while taking a third of their shots there. The Huskers have blocked nearly a quarter of opponents’ shots at the rim, and everybody is getting in the mix (James Palmer Jr. and Isaac Copeland Jr. each have five blocks, Brady Heiman and Isaiah Roby each have four blocks and even freshman guard Amir Harris has a couple). Teams are actually shooting slightly better on 2-point jumpers (27.5 percent) and that’s where most of their shots (41.4 percent) are coming from.
But the number that will please Tim Miles the most is Nebraska’s 3-point defense: the Huskers are No. 1 in the country as opponents are shooting 12.5 percent against them, making just six of their 48 attempts.
“I think our defense is good,” Miles said after the Seton Hall win. “I’m concerned about our rebounding ability but I thought we rebounded fairly well tonight. Those two things, although they’re separate skills, they run obviously hand-in-hand together. The more opportunity we give them, the worse it is for our D. I like where we’re at with our defense, I like our 3-point defense. It’s odd, but three years ago we made the shift and the first year we made the shift to less attempts, our opponents shot 40 percent against us. But we moved way up, like 115 spots, in terms of 3-pointers attempted from where we had been previously. Now, the last two years we’ve been very good at contesting all those shots and the first three games have been pretty good. We have to make it hard for people to make 3s.”
Granted, playing teams who can’t shoot helps and that appears to have been the case for the Huskers so far. But teams don’t miss as badly as they have against Nebraska on wide open looks. The Huskers are affecting a lot of these misses.
The Huskers have allowed some second-chance opportunities during stretches and that’s probably going to happen when the only guy playing in the front court taller than 6-foot-9 is a 215-pound freshman, but the Huskers did out-rebound the Pirates on both ends of the floor on Wednesday.
The offense, however, is still a work in progress. The Huskers only shot 41.3 percent from the field which was impacted heavily by Palmer’s 7-for-20 performance. The senior wing missed his first eight shots before finally getting himself going, and he took advantage of an undisciplined defensive team to get to the line a ton in the second half. He shot 13-of-18 (72.2 percent) from the line, which is right in line with his career average and not a great number for a guy who lives at the foul line. Palmer did finish with 29 points but he could have easily cracked 35 or even approached 40 had he shot just a little better and took some better shots at times.
The truth is that I’m starting to get worried about Palmer’s jump shot. It’s still early, but the late season slump that tanked his percentage last season appears to have rolled over to this year. If you take into account Nebraska’s closed scrimmage against Iowa State, its exhibition against Wayne State and its three regular season games so far, Palmer has shot 3-of-25 from 3.
Palmer’s teammates aren’t losing confidence in him any time soon, though.
“He’s going to stay aggressive,” Glynn Watson Jr. said. “That’s what he does; he’s a scorer so you know he’s going to stay aggressive. We’re going to tell him to keep taking his shots; eventually they’ll fall.”
Will they, though? If they don’t, it puts a ceiling on just how effective Palmer — and Nebraska’s offense as a result — can be. The 6-foot-6 senior can get to the rim at will, but as we saw at times last season, if defenses don’t respect his jumper at all it’s going to be a lot easier to stay in front of him and force him into tough shots.
However, Watson has picked up Palmer’s slack and has actually been the team’s best player so far this season. That is huge. Watson’s shot continues to fall as he is now 9-of-15 from 3 to start the season. While Palmer struggled early against the Pirates, Watson put the team on his back and scored 10 of the Huskers’ first 20 points.
What I liked even better than the scoring, however, is that once his shot started to cool off (he hit four of his first six shots, then only made one more on five attempts) he shifted from scoring himself to setting his teammates up, and he finished with eight assists, one off his career high of nine. Watson hasn't always been the best distributor, but if he can continue to feel out the game and find the right balance between scoring and passing that he found on Wednesday, Nebraska’s got a chance to be much improved on offense this season.
Finally, let’s talk about Isaiah Roby.
The 6-foot-8 junior entered this season with some serious hype after a breakout sophomore season. Some see him as one of the better NBA prospects in the Big Ten — for the 2019 Draft. Heck, scouts from the Brooklyn Nets, Dallas Mavericks, Indiana Pacers and Los Angeles Clippers were in attendance on Wednesday.
However, through three games, Roby hasn’t stood out all that much. He’s played 55 minutes this year and has taken 10 shots (that’s 10th on the team in shots per 40 minutes… behind walk-on Johnny Trueblood). Granted, he’s made seven of them, but he also has seven turnovers to seven assists in that time, which is 5.1 per 40 minutes, by far the most on the team. Roby has missed two shots inside the arc this season, and both happened in the Seton Hall game. Both were layups.
He’s only taken two 3s and made one through three games. The junior also spent most of the game on the bench as he picked up four fouls in 10 minutes.
The question marks about his game that Roby needed to answer coming into this season: foul trouble, offensive aggression, 3-point volume, turnovers. Small sample size alert, but none of those questions have been answered so far. Roby looks an awful lot like the guy we saw last season.
But then he does THIS and reminds everyone why he’s such an intriguing prospect.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) November 15, 2018
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.