James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr. carried the Huskers on their run through the Big Ten Tournament in Chicago last week. The senior guards took turns going off, helping the Huskers knock off Rutgers and Maryland before nearly doing the same to Wisconsin.
Isaiah Roby, on the other hand, never quite got going. He totaled 38 points on 40 shot attempts in the tournament with a high of 15. When Coach Tim Miles began game-planning for the Huskers’ opening game of the NIT against Butler, he realized that wasn’t going to be enough to get it done.
Butler’s defensive strength is on the perimeter and the Bulldogs lack athleticism and rim protection in the frontcourt. Getting 50 from Palmer and Watson again wasn’t realistic, but getting 20 from Roby was.
“We just thought that Isaiah’s versatility at the four or five would be an advantage,” Miles said. “He’s a little bit stronger than [Sean] McDermott and a little bit more mobile than their two centers, [Nate] Fowler and [Joey] Brunk. Just if we could move him around some. A lot of times when he gets going, then some of the other guys feed off that.”
Roby responded to the challenge of his coaches and produced a career-high 28 points on 9-of-12 from the field, 1-of-2 from 3 and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line. He chipped in eight rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block.
Unfortunately, the game was on ESPN2 and ESPN’s video archives aren’t nearly as screen-cap-friendly as BTN’s, so I don’t have any pretty pictures for you today. Hopefully my words will be enough.
Butler opened in a zone, but switched to man a couple possessions in and the Huskers took advantage immediately. Roby hung back in the weak side dunker spot while the guards handled the ball out on the perimeter, then Roby ducked in and sealed McDermott as the 6-foot-6, 195-pound forward tried to front him.
Thorir Thorbjarnarson recognized the mismatch and lobbed it over the top to Roby for the easy lay-in.
Roby didn’t get another look for a while and Butler raced out to a 14-2 lead in the meantime. The Bulldogs switched back to their 3-2 zone. Nebraska swung the ball around to Johnny Trueblood on the wing who attacked off the bounce and got a piece of the paint, kicking it out to Watson on the wing.
Watson in turn swung it to Roby in the corner for a wide open 3 as Brunk was too far away and too slow to close out and contest in time. Roby buried it.
Butler stayed in the zone and after starting on the block Roby popped to the corner where the Huskers got the ball to him. Christian David closed out but Roby ripped through and drove past him on the baseline, drawing a foul as Brunk rotated over and contested his shot at the rim. Roby hit both free throws.
Roby’s next opportunity came after the Huskers pushed the pace following a missed 3 by Butler. It’s a bit of a scramble situation and I’m not quite sure if Minnesota is playing zone or man. Thorbjarnarson attacked the basket and passed it back to Roby on the block with McDermott defending him. Roby takes his time, surveying the floor, and when no double-team came he went to work with a dribble to the middle, a jump stop and a finish over the top of the smaller McDermott.
On the next possession, Butler was definitely in the 3-2 zone and Roby cut to the high post where the Huskers got him the ball. He dribbled once to his left, spun back to his right and elevated and extended for the finger roll.
Roby scored Nebraska’s first 11 points. He interrupted his personal scoring streak with a pass to Watson for a 3, but then he got back in the scoring column on the next possession. After setting a ball screen, he rolled wide then sealed McDermott again. Thorbjarnarson fed him again and Roby gave a slight fake to Folwer rotating over in help, freezing him and allowing Roby to go up with the short hook.
After a free-throw by Palmer, Roby went back to work.He caught the ball on the wing against the 3-2 zone and swung it to Watson. The top defender went to double the ball so Roby cut to the free-throw line and Watson gave it right back. Bryce Golden, the left side baseline defender stepped to Roby but Roby went right by him and and elevated for the two-handed slam.
Palmer gave Roby a break and went on a personal 7-0 run to give Nebraska its first lead of the game, and when Palmer drew a lot of attention on the next possession Roby took advantage, cutting down the lane after he caught Brunk ball-watching and doing this:
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) March 21, 2019
Roby got one more look to end the half, a deep step-back 3 at the buzzer, but it didn’t fall.
He finished the first half 7-of-8 from the field for 17 points and the Huskers took a 31-30 lead into the locker room.
Roby cooled off a bit at halftime. A late double led to a turnover on an inside touch, then his next touch he drew a foul on the ground after a mid-post catch and spin. Later, he ran off a Borchardt screen and got Brunk switched onto him, driving past the slower center, but Roby short-armed the finish over the contest from David in help.
Roby didn’t score in the second half until more than 11 minutes had passed. Trueblood scored plus a foul but missed the free throw. Roby grabbed the rebound then drew a foul going up himself, hitting both free throws for the four-point possession.
Roby’s first field goal of the second half came at the 6:30 mark. He ran a pick-and-roll with Watson but bailed on the roll halfway through and popped out for the mid-post catch. He faced up Kamar Baldwin, Butler’s best player and a tenacious defender that also happens to be 6-foot-1 and 195 pounds.
Roby faced him up, jabbed then pump-faked Baldwin off his feet. He dribbled twice to his left then Euro-stepped around the help defender, Fowler, for the lefty finish.
Roby was forced into a tough one-foot fadeaway on his next touch as he was far too patient, never gaining an advantage and inviting a double-team. It was his last miss.
With a five-point lead and just over three minutes to play, Nebraska got Roby the ball in the mid-post against David and he drew a foul as he tried to make a move, hitting both free throws. After Butler pulled within one, Roby drew a foul while battling for position and split the free throws.
Roby had one more bucket in him, and it was a big one. With a 74-72 lead and 50.2 seconds to play after a bucket by David, Nebraska came out and got the ball to Roby at the top of the key. He faced David up, jabbed once then drove right, drawing the help from Baldwin off of Pureblood in the corner. David tried to draw a charge on Roby but no call came. Roby kicked it out to Trueblood and the walk-on attacked the basket, Baldwin recovered to cut off Trueblood and he gave it right back to Roby while David was still regaining his feet. Fowler stepped over late but not until Roby had made the catch and the junior dropped in a lefty hook over the 6-foot-10 Fowler.
The Huskers sealed the deal at the free throw line including a pair by Roby, capping an outstanding day for the junior from Dixon, Illinois.
Roby has been very effective against zone defenses all season and he tore Butler’s apart any time he got a touch. Roby was aggressive and decisive with his moves for most of the game and good things happened as a result. Perhaps the best sign was that he was actually finishing contested shots, something that he’s struggled with at times.
When Roby is playing well, he’s a mismatch nightmare and Butler had no answer for him on Wednesday.
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.