There have been plenty of columns and radio segments focusing on the future of the Nebraska basketball program after the Huskers’ 70-62 loss to Gardner-Webb on Sunday. There’s no need for me to re-hash the same arguments or call for Tim Miles’ head.
Instead, I’m going to limit my scope to this season. There have been some disturbing trends that have emerged during the non-conference, and all of them surfaced on Sunday.
First, we have to talk about the shooting. Lack of perimeter shooting has plagued Nebraska for several years now, and it has really crippled the offense. Nebraska is 335th in the country in 3-point percentage at 29 percent. The Huskers are 314th in makes (58) but 251st in attempts (200).
Prior to Nebraska’s loss to Gardner-Webb, they had shot 39-of-91 (42.9 percent) against mid-major or Division II competition (including Dayton). In Nebraska’s five games against high-major teams, they shot 20-92 (21.7 percent).
Against Gardner-Webb, they shot 3-of-17, and that isn’t a fluke. Nebraska both lacks shooters and the shooters it has are struggling mightily.
Jack McVeigh is supposed to be the designated sharp-shooter, and he had a promising freshman season where he shot 34 percent overall but showed the ability to catch fire. This year, he’s shooting 31 percent. Take away McVeigh’s 4-of-9 performance against an overmatched South Dakota squad, and McVeigh is just 4-of-30 since game three. He’s missing wide open shots. He was 1-of-6 against Gardner-Webb.
Michael Jacobson arrived at Nebraska as a potential stretch big, but outside of a two-game stretch where he shot 3-of-6, he’s 0-12 from deep and is shooting just 42 percent on the season inside the arc as well. He missed his only 3-pointer against Gardner-Webb.
Anton Gill, the Louisville transfer, was expected to bring some shooting but is just 6-of-26 on the season including two games where he shot 2-of-3. Gill shot 0-of-3 from deep against Gardner-Webb.
Freshman Jeriah Horne showed some shooting potential in preseason practice and during the exhibition game, and he went 2-of-5 from deep in 23 minutes against the University of Mary. Since then, he has played a total of 31 minutes and is 0-of-5. He played two minutes and did not take a shot against Gardner-Webb.
In summation, Nebraska’s floor-spacers shot 1-of-10 from deep against the Runnin’ Bulldogs.
But the problem goes deeper than just missing shots. At this point, team’s do not respect Nebraska’s ability to shoot. Nebraska had 20 turnovers against Gardner-Webb, and that was by design for Gardner-Webb. The Bulldogs, not having to worry about shooters on the perimeter, sagged off their men all game. Several times, a Husker drove the paint, drew a defender and looked to dump off to a teammate cutting to the basket or waiting near the basket. And almost every time, there was one — and sometimes two — Bulldogs jumping in front of the pass.
Tai Webster finished with seven turnovers in the game, and that sagging defense was a big reason why. In a surprising turn of events, Webster has grown into the team’s most reliable 3-point shooter as a senior at 39 percent. However, Webster is at his best when attacking the basket and he can’t space the floor for himself. Glynn Watson Jr. is in a similar boat as Webster where he needs space in order to play to his strengths.
Webster and Watson making plays for themselves and others is Nebraska’s best source of offense, but if teams don’t have to start respecting Nebraska’s shooters then fans can expect to see plenty more games from Webster with more misses than makes and more turnovers than assists. He can only do so much with so many defenders keying in on him.
Another source of offense for Nebraska has been mid- and low-post touches for Ed Morrow Jr., but no shooting makes that difficult as well. Morrow doesn’t do well in traffic or against double-teams at this stage, and he saw plenty of that from Gardner-Webb. He did grab 18 rebounds, but he only shot 2-of-5 from the field (and 5-of-9 from the free-throw line) and turned the ball over twice.
To sum things up, until Nebraska proves it can hit some shots you can count on teams to continue to employ a similar defensive game-plan as Gardner-Webb did, and after Tuesday’s game against Southern, those teams will have a lot more talent to work with as well.
Tim Miles has to find a way to generate some offense.
“I think some of our guys are searching for their game, quote unquote,” Miles said. “They’re looking to see how they can fit in. I didn’t feel like I could get the right groups on the floor … We had a lot of empty minutes out there out of guys and I just have to figure out how to get those guys better looks, better ways to be productive. Obviously I’m not getting that done at this point in time.”
That is a problem. Miles has four sophomores and Webster (the five starters prior to Sunday’s game against Gardner-Webb when Miles shuffled the lineup for the first time) who saw significant playing time last year, and we’re 11 games into this season. If those players still don’t know their roles by this point, then what have they been doing in practice? I understand if the newcomers are still swimming somewhat, but a lack of defined roles at this stage points to a general lack of direction for the program.
Empty minutes are a huge problem. Jacobson has played 20 or more minutes in all but two games this season, and he has scored more than six points just three times. After a hot start, McVeigh has put up two goose eggs and a one-point game. He has finished with more points than shot attempts just once in the last eight games — the game against South Dakota — despite playing 20 or more minutes in nine of 11 games. Gill has scored 35 points on 54 shots and has just one double-digit game.
As for the newcomers still trying to find their way, that leads me to the way the freshmen are being handled. Isaiah Roby played 12 minutes, Jordy Tshimanga played eight and Horne played two against Gardner-Webb. Why so few minutes?
“Jordy was behind on defensive plays,” Miles said. “He was in on a lot of defensive errors, and then he was kind of in the middle of two loose balls that he couldn’t come up with and a rebound. I just felt like when he was in they were winning the 50-50 balls battle and the hustle game that way. Plus then you go into not doing a good job in screen-and-roll defense, that’s what got him out. He’s normally a very good rebounder.”
I agree with Miles’ assessment here. Tshimanga did not play well. The raw 6-foot-11 freshman had looked to be on an upward swing, as he played 11 minutes against Creighton and 19 minutes against Kansas, both top 10 teams. In those games, Tshimanga put up 16 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks and turned the ball over just twice. But he took a step back against a much less talented opponent in Gardner-Webb. So be it.
“Isaiah, I think he’s trying to figure out his way through, where he fits in. We try and run some things for him to put him — for instance, we run two out, three in motion so he can kind of be a featured guy, which I know he’s used to, and he just had a couple turnovers here and there — I think they listed him for one, it seemed like there were two, and passed up a shot. I think everybody in the world groaned when they saw that. I think he’s just got to go out and earn that confidence and go from there.”
This is where I have a problem. From my perspective, Roby was having one of his best games as a Husker. He scored on back-to-back plays in transition — once on a put-back of a teammate’s miss after sprinting the floor and the second on an impressive finish after filling the right lane. His third bucket was also a put-back. He finished with six points, four boards and an assist.
He did have one turnover, where he attacked the basket, drew the defense and dumped off to Jacobson. As I wrote earlier, Gardner-Webb was leaving shooters to cover the pass in the lane, and a Bulldog picked off the pass. With proper spacing, it would have been a solid play by Roby. There was no other turnover despite what Miles thought he remembered.
Roby did turn down a corner 3, instead passing back to the top of the key to another open teammate. Roby has been struggling with his jump shot, which was an area of his game he needed to work on when he arrived on campus. So instead of firing up another one he moved the ball. Miles took a timeout shortly after, and on the next possession, Roby get the ball in the same spot on a drive-and-kick and took the shot, which he missed. If turning down that shot was something Miles held against Roby, he had already made an adjustment on the next play. As for confidence, it is true that it must be earned, but to a certain extent, it can also be given, and that’s what fans want to see — their coaches giving young players confidence.
Roby was one of the few guys who was making some things happen, but he only played 12 minutes, and Miles’ reasoning rings hollow at least to me. Roby is his prized recruit, and the players ahead of him aren’t exactly lighting it up.
“Those are guys – Jeriah got a crack in the first half. We were searching a little bit because we had so many empty minutes. You look at some of the minutes we put out there of guys that just weren’t very productive. I have to look at that like shot quality, what would I do over, and it was just an utterly disappointing day.”
“Search mode” seems to be the only time Horne gets in the game, and as a shooter, when you’re only getting a random minute here or there it’s hard to find a rhythm. At this point, I’m not entirely sure why Miles didn’t redshirt Horne if this was the only role he had planned for him. Now, it is early to be sure, but if he hasn’t earned a regular rotation spot during non conference play, will it be any easier to do so in the Big Ten, even as down as it appears to be this season?
Expectations are generally low for young teams (unless those teams are Kentucky or Duke), and often boil down to one thing: progress. Fans want to see the young players get on the floor and grow. However, I’m seeing a lot more stagnation, and perhaps even some regression, with this Nebraska squad. Tai Webster’s transformation has been terrific, but he’s gone after this year. Tim Miles’ program is built around the sophomore and freshman classes and those players have to show progress.
Nebraska has one last non conference game it can use to get back on track before Big Ten play begins. Southern (4-7) is coming to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Tuesday for a 7 p.m. start.
“We’ll watch film here and we’ll have a game plan ready to go … The issue is us, too,” Miles said. “It’s us, and it’s our mindset. You just go across the line and you can find something wrong with production, but that ultimately falls to me getting guys in the right places. This is on me. I hope to have a heck of a lot better answer for you on Tuesday.”
The answer Miles comes up with could shape the rest of this season — and the rest of his time at Nebraska as well. That’s a heck of a lot of weight placed on a game against a sub-.500 SWAC team, but that’s where we are at this point.
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.