Something that has become pretty clear about this Nebraska team is that the Huskers will play to their level of competition most games, for better or worse.
The same team that came up just five points short at Ohio State, hung around at Purdue and lost on a late-clock game-winner in overtime at Penn State also needed a buzzer-beater to pull out a one-point win at home against Illinois and only won at Rutgers by six.
Why have the Huskers managed to compete with some of the better teams in the conference while also struggling to pull away from the teams in the Big Ten cellar? Nebraska’s defense is keeping it in every game, but the offense hasn’t been good enough to put together many comfortable wins.
Nebraska has been incredibly reliant on a few players to carry the load offensively this season while the rest of the pieces struggle to contribute to the scoring. Over the last seven games, Nebraska has had two, three or four players account for more than 70 percent of its scoring.
Against Wisconsin on Monday, James Palmer Jr., Isaac Copeland, Glynn Watson Jr. and Jordy Tshimanga totaled 69 of Nebraska’s 74 points. The other six players who took the floor combined for just five.
Against Rutgers, Copeland, Palmer, Watson adn Isaiah Roby scored 59 out of 60 points. That left one point from the other five players.
At Ohio State, Palmer put up 34 himself and Copeland added eight. The other eight combined for 17. Against Illinois, Palmer, Evan Taylor and Roby had 46 while the other six chipped in 18. Against Penn State, Copeland, Watson, Roby and Anton Gill scored 64 points while the other six had just 10.
The outliers during that stretch were the Iowa and Michigan games, and with more balanced offense the Huskers managed to win by 14 and 20, respectively.
James Palmer Jr. has been a flat-out stud for the Huskers. He’s averaging 20 points and 2.8 assists in Big Ten play, and in the six games since a five-point outing at Penn State, Palmer is putting up 25.2 points per game. However, relying on Palmer to carry the team by himself is playing with fire.
Against the Badgers, Palmer really struggled for the first 25 minutes, and as a result the Huskers trailed for most of the game and even fell behind by double digits. Palmer finally got it going just in time to take over and save the day, scoring 21 points in the last 15 minutes, but if Wisconsin had been able to knock down some free throws it might have been too little, too late.
Nebraska doesn’t need a bunch of guys averaging 20-plus points, but it can’t be getting goose eggs from more than half of the guys that take the floor. I wrote after the win at Rutgers that Nebraska needs to get some production out of its shooting guards. Since then, Evan Taylor has scored nine and zero while Anton Gill put up three and zero.
Taylor himself isn’t playing lights out, but I think it’s time to make the change back to the original starting backcourt with Gill coming off the bench as a sixth man. Since joining the starting lineup, Gill has recorded one 10-point game, two five-point games and two doughnuts. That’s 18 points on 8-of-28 shooting including 5-of-24 from 3. That’s not going to cut it.
Nebraska’s other new starter, sophomore Isaiah Roby, has been really up and down. Since going the first five, Roby has put up games of nine, 14, two, eight, 17 and zero. Nebraska — including both Tim Miles and Roby himself — has to do a better job of getting him engaged in the offense. He had just one two-point attempt against both Ohio State and Rutgers, and he got just three shots total against Wisconsin.
Part of the move to get him into the starting lineup should have been about getting him more opportunities, but through a combination of the way Nebraska is running its offense and Roby’s own lack of aggressiveness, he too often becomes an afterthought. Toby isn’t ready to be a primary — or even secondary — scorer, but he’s too talented to be putting up two or less.
Roby’s classmate, Jordy Tshimanga, put together his second straight good offensive game against the Badgers despite fouling out in just 13 minutes while trying to defend Ethan Happ. Tshimanga finished with nine points on 3-of-3 from the field and 3-of-3 from the foul line with four rebounds and a block. Happ abused Tshimanga defensively in the first half, but down the stretch Tshimanga put together a few really strong defensive possessions against Wisconsin’s All-America center that helped Nebraska take control and close out the game.
Against Iowa, Tshimanga put up 11 points on 4-of-5 from the field and 3-of-4 from the line with eight rebounds and an assist. If Nebraska can keep getting this kind of production from the 6-foot-11 sophomore, the Huskers should be in good shape.
Finally, Monday’s win in Madison was one of Tim Miles better performances on the bench. He had to navigate virtually his entire front court playing in foul trouble. First Roby then Tshimanga fouled out down the stretch, and Isaac Copeland was one call away from joining them. Yet Miles still mangled to find a way to guide his team to a win. The defensive adjustments in the second half made a big difference, most notably the switch to the 1-3-1 one at the right times.
Offensively, Miles himself deferred credit in his post-game interview on BTN, saying he stopped calling sets and let his guys do their thing. Coaching often comes with a big ego, but Miles was humble enough to get out of the way and let Palmer and others do what they do best.
Nebraska will have a week to first rest and recuperate then get back in the lab to figure out some tweaks for the stretch run. The gym is certainly where you’ll find Palmer.
Nebraska's next game isn't until next Tuesday. Stephen Bardo asked James Palmer Jr. after tonight's win how he was going to spend his time off.
Palmer said he's going to get in the gym: "Ain't no days off."#Nebrasketball
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) January 30, 2018
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.