Sunday’s loss at Iowa was a rough one for the Huskers, but it was not without positives. Offensively, Nebraska’s frontcourt was terrific.
Isaac Copeland Jr. was Nebraska’s best player on Sunday evening (24 points on 8-of-16 shooting), but he’s been solid with flashes of brilliance all season. After a quiet game against Maryland for Copeland, the Huskers made sure to get him involved early and often against the Hawkeyes and he delivered.
However, what stood out to me was the play of Isaiah Roby, who hasn’t quite had the season many expected him to have after a strong sophomore campaign. Looking at his per-40 stats, Roy’s scoring has only taken a minor bump while his shooting percentages have dropped across the board as have his rebound and block numbers.
All of those stats were way up against Iowa, however. Roby finished with 17 points on 8-of-10 sooting, knocking down his only 3-point attempt, and he grabbed nine rebounds and blocked one shot in just 23 minutes. He was minus-2 in plus-minus in a nine-point loss.
Nine rebounds (and a 25.1 rebound rate) is a season-high. Sophomore wing Nana Akenten was second on the team with a 15.8 rebound rate while Copeland’s was 12.8. No one else had a rate higher than 7.3. Nebraska got outrebounded on both sides of the floor, and the Hawkeyes had an 18-9 advantage in second-chance points as a result.
But today, we’re focusing on Roby’s offense, because this was his best scoring game of the season by far. Foul trouble was the only thing that could slow him down as he picked up two fouls and played just 10 minutes in the first half.
Roby put his whole arsenal on display against the Hawkeyes, which Nebraska needs more of going forward.
Roughly four minutes in, Nebraska ran action to get Roby a touch in the mid-post on the right side of the court near the baseline. He faced up his defender, Ryan Kriener, and although Iowa had players in help position in the paint, he had some room to operate.
Roby put the ball on the deck once, twice, three times while backing Kriener down, and as Tyler Cook went to dig in Roby stepped through and rose for a left-handed jump hook. Money.
Roby has struggled at times to finish with his off-hand, so both the confidence and the result on the play was good to see. It feels like Roby has done pretty well in the post this season.
Another area where Roby has done well is the pick-and-roll. Nebraska has struggled to hit the roll man at times when defenses have hard-hedged or trapped the ball-handler, but Iowa isn’t exactly a great defensive team. A couple of possessions after Roby’s hook, the 6-foot-8 forward set a drag screen in semi-transition for Glynn Watson Jr.
Kriener defended it about as poorly as one can – neither attacking the ball-handler or sticking with the roll-man – so Roby slipped it. On the ball side, Thomas Allen Jr. rotated up from the corner to the wing, taking his defender with him, and Joe Wieskamp, guarding James Palmer Jr. in the opposite corner, was too far away to tag Roby on the roll. Without pressure in his face, Watson made the easy pass over the top and Roby slammed it home uncontested with the left hand.
Later in the half, Iowa had switched to a 3-2 zone. Copeland is Nebraska’s best high-post player, but he picked up his second foul on a three-point play by Cook that put Iowa up 27-24 and sent Copeland to the bench. On the next possession, Roby stepped into that high post role in the middle of the zone with Tanner Borchardt in the low post.
Nebraska got the ball to Roby at the left elbow as Borchardt ducked in to post up on Luka Garza, looking for the high-low. Roby caught the ball, briefly surveyed the court and, with no one in front of him, put the ball on the deck to attack the rim.
Garza got around Borchardt and walled up in front of Roby, forcing the miss with his left hand. However, Roby’s momentum knocked Garza under the rim and with a quick second jump, Roby followed up his own miss for the bucket.
Roby wasn’t credited with any stats for this next clip from the second half, although I personally would classify controlled tap-outs as offensive rebounds. Regardless, Roby’s hustle and positioning kept the play alive twice and Roby was rewarded for his effort later in the possession.
Nebraska moved the ball around a bit against the zone before Palmer drove baseline, settling for an off-balance contested jumper that he missed. Roby snuck in behind the zone on the weak side, however, and when the ball bounced up and off, he was there to tap it out to Allen.
Allen took advantage of the scramble situation to get into the lane for a floater from 7 feet out, but it caught the rim and popped out off the glass. Roby established inside position again, and although it came off the other side Roby got there before Garza could secure it and tapped it out again, this time to Copeland. Copeland swung it to Palmer who got tripped up looking to attack.
On the ensuing in-bounds play, Nebraska ran more zone offense (Iowa was in a 2-3 rather than a 3-2 at this point). With Copeland back in the game, he took the high post spot while Roby worked the baseline. Nebraska swung the ball from one side of the other, getting it in Palmer’s hands.
The baseline defender on that side closed out to him and Palmer attacked, driving to the middle where Copeland had dropped and was occupying the center. Palmer dropped the ball off to an open Roby in the dunker spot and he, well, dunked it.
That last play was so nice, Nebraska ran it twice, this one coming with Nebraska down 78-71 with just over three minutes to play. Nebraska swung the ball from right to left against the 2-3, getting the ball to Palmer again, and again the baseline defender closed out high. Palmer attacked him, this time to the baseline side, and Cook, playing in the middle, stepped forward to cut off the drive.
Roby was in the dunker spot again and again Palmer dropped it off to him for the slam.
This last clip didn’t ultimately effect the outcome of the game as that was already decided with a 10-point deficit and less than 30 seconds to play, but it was still good to see.
Back in man-to-man, a slight shot-fake from Watson was enough to get Jordan Bohannon off his feet and Watson drove by him, drawing the help from Cook who was guarding Roby in the right corner. Roby was shot-ready and Watson kicked it out to him, and the junior nailed the shot.
After shooting 40.5 percent from 3 as a sophomore (on roughly the same amount of per-game volume), Roby is down at 26.1 percent. That 3 against Iowa was just his sixth make this season on 23 attempts.
On top of not shooting well, Roby hasn’t shown much confidence in the shot, often pump-faking himself out of wide open looks to drive into a defender that was playing off of him. If he’s left open, Roby has to take the shot to keep defenses honest if nothing else (because when defenders close out hard on him, we get some really fun dunks).
Looking at Synergy Sports Technology’s breakdown of Roby’s season 14 games in, he has been phenomenal against zone defenses, and that was backed up by the clips above. He is in the 93rd percentile, classified as “excellent,” with 22 points on 16 possessions. He’s 10-of-13 from the field with one trip to the foul line and three turnovers. Between Roby and Copeland, Nebraska actually ran a lot of good zone offense. But at some point, a team is going to have to hit shots to beat a zone and Nebraska simply couldn’t.
Roby has been strong as a finisher in the post as well this season. On 15 attempts, he’s 5-of-8 from the field with five shooting fouls drawn and two turnovers, which is 1.133 points per possession (91st percentile, “excellent”).
I’m not going to get into his jump-shooting numbers at this point, but they’re not great. Surprisingly, his numbers as the roll man in the pick-and-roll (regardless of the dunk above) have been terrible. He’s 5-of-20 from the field with five turnovers and five shooting fouls drawn. Pick-and-roll offense has to make major strides for Nebraska, and that is on both the roll men like Roby, the ones handling the ball (most often, Watson or Palmer) and the guys around them spacing the floor and keeping defenses from collapsing.
Sunday’s loss was rough, but Roby’s performance is one positive to take away. Had he been able to stay on the court longer (a separate topic for another day), perhaps Nebraska would have had a better chance to win that game. Either way, that’s the kind of play Nebraska needs out of Roby moving forward.
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.