We’re two games into the 2017-18 season and Nebraska is sitting at 2-0, although it’s been something of a rocky road to get to this point with a clean record.
The Huskers struggled mightily on offense and played from behind more than they led in a season-opening 72-68 win against Eastern Illinois. That was a bit tighter than Coach Tim Miles would have liked, but the upside was the team got a chance to learn how to close out a close game.
On Monday, Nebraska got off to a much better start, racing out to a 25-2 leads in an 86-67 win against North Texas. The second half, however, barely qualifies as basketball in my mind with 31 fouls, 36 free throws and 38 missed shots between the two teams.
Perhaps the most troubling thing from the first two games is that the scoring droughts that have plagued this program for a few years are still very much an issue this team has to figure out. After scoring 25 points in the first 8:08 of the game, Nebraska came out of halftime ice cold and managed just nine points in the first 7:44 of the second half. Part of the Huskers’ struggles was the zone defense adjustment North Texas made, but even so Nebraska created some good looks that just didn’t go down.
Against Eastern Illinois, Nebraska lived and died at the free-throw line, getting there at will (39 attempts) but converting just 23 of them (59 percent), which opened the door to Eastern Illinois hanging around. Against the Mean Green on Monday, Nebraska improved significantly (33-of-45, 73.3 percent) but still left some points at the line.
Nebraska shot 19-of-38 inside the arc including 17-of-31 (6-of-17 in the second half) on layups and dunks against North Texas. The Huskers also shot 0-of-5 on 2-point shots outside the paint. The ability to get to the free-throw line is incredibly valuable for a team, but Nebraska is not going to be shooting 40 free throws per game in Big Ten play. The Huskers are going to have to take advantage of their opportunities around the rim if they hope to keep pace with the better teams on their schedule.
One potential source of points in the paint is sophomore center Jordy Tshimanaga, who has scored a total of four points in two games. Tshimanga missed all three of his field goals in the opener and shot 2-of-4 from the foul line in 20 minutes. Against North Texas, Tshimanga dropped in a hook shot on the second possession of the game but only attempted one other shot and played just 10 minutes because of some defensive mistakes according to Miles.
The 6-foot-11, 267-pound post is working off some rust after missing some time during preseason practice and he’s still pretty raw, but Nebraska has to establish something inside to balance out the offense. Through two games, Nebraska’s three centers — Tshimanga, Duby Okeke and walk-on Tanner Borchardt — are a combined 3-of-10 from the field and 3-of-6 from the free-throw line in 55 minutes. Rebounding and rim protection is the primary focus for that trio, but Nebraska does need some scoring production and that starts with getting them touches, whether on the block or in pick-and-roll situations.
Speaking of rim protection, Nebraska blocked nine shots in each of its first two games. The Huskers only reached that mark four times in 31 games last season. Okeke, the 6-foot-8 graduate transfer from Winthrop, sets the tone in that regard, jumping after every shot that goes up anywhere near him.
“If he’s going to chase down the ball, the other guys have to realize they’re to chasing down the ball, they’re boxing out,” Miles said, after Okeke’s aggressiveness and his teammate’s slow reaction opened up offensive rebounding opportunities for North Texas on Monday. “That’s one thing we’ve got to adjust with. I do want him chasing down the ball, I think it does affect people coming into the lane. It makes them think twice. I think that’s a weapon that we haven’t had that we have to utilize.”
Okeke isn’t the only one protecting the paint, however, as five different Huskers have blocked at least on shot so far led by Isaiah Roby with six in the opener and Isaac Copeland with four on Monday.
Copeland contributed in a lot of ways against the Mean Green with eight points, eight rebounds, two assists and a steal in addition to the blocked shots, but his jump shot continues to evade him. Between three preseason games and two regular season ones, Copeland is now 1-of-14 from 3 as a Husker.
“I think in time he’ll shoot the ball better,” Miles said. “I don’t expect him to struggle like that. But he was critical with a whole bunch of rebounding and blocked shots stuff, and he’s a facilitator too, he’s a good passer. We can put him in some other positions to help us that way too.”
Miles said Copeland’s back stiffened up while he was sitting on the bench in the second half against North Texas, and that is something the team will continue to monitor and deal with after the 6-foot-9 forward had back surgery last year. In the meantime, Roby looks ready to pick up the slack after putting up 22 points, 20 rebounds, seven blocks and two steals in 46 minutes.
The first two games have reaffirmed some of what we expected and have also offered up a few surprises, but one can only learn so much from playing the likes of Eastern Illinois and North Texas. The first real test of the season comes on Thursday as Nebraska hits the road to take on a young but talented St. John’s team.
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.