Fans got their first look at the post-Isaac Copeland Jr. injury Huskers in Tuesday night’s 62-51 home loss to No. 24 Wisconsin, and it was not pretty.
To Nebraska’s credit, the effort and energy problems that had popped up in recent games didn’t seem to be present. Despite some frustrating tip-around moments on the glass, Nebraska managed to out-rebound the Badgers 45-37 including 18-10 on the offensive end. The Huskers held Wisconsin to less than a point per possession.
But no matter how hard the Huskers play, they are not going to win a game scoring 51 points or shooting 28.3 percent from the field like they did against the Badgers. The biggest problem on Tuesday was Nebraska’s inability to finish at the rim, which Derek Peterson will have more on later.
But for this piece, I’m focusing on how the Huskers looked without Copeland on the court.
“Yeah, it was different, it was really different,” Coach Tim Miles said. “Cope has been a starter every game and you’re running lineups out there and you’re like, ‘OK, this will be interesting.’”
Miles has been hesitant to use his bench this season, but Copeland’s absence gives him little choice moving forward. Tim Miles went nine-deep on Tuesday (not including the walk-ons in the final minute). He used 15 different lineup combinations and only four of them ended up positive (including one lineup that played just 37 seconds and the walk-on lineup at the end).
Miles used 10 different lineups in the first half and didn’t repeat the same group even once. Miles seemingly was throwing everything he had at the wall just to see what would stick, although none of it really did.
The best lineup Miles had was the new starting five with Tanner Borchardt at the five and Isaiah Roby at the four in place of Copeland. That was Nebraska’s most used lineup, sharing the court together for 10:07 and outscoring the Badgers 18-14 in that time. Nebraska led 8-7 when Borchardt took a seat at the first media timeout, though Nebraska never go the starting five back out there together again in the first half. Top open the second half, that group outscored Wisconsin 8-4 before Borchardt picked up his third foul 3:22 into the half and took a seat. Miles went back to that group at the 7:15 mark, but Borchardt committed his fifth foul just 1:10 later. Wisconsin won that stretch 3-2.
The next most-used lineup featured Glynn Watson Jr., Thomas Allen Jr., James Palmer Jr., Thorir Thorbjarnarson and Roby. Thorbjarnarson had hardly played at all to that point (his only action in Big Ten play this season came in the final minute of the Ohio State game), let alone at the four, but he brought a serious spark, grabbing 10 rebounds in 17 minutes of action.
That group was part of Nebraska’s run late in the first half that allowed the Huskers to get back into the game, outscoring Wisconsin 5-3 to close the half after that same group with freshman Amir Harris in Watson’s place outscored the Badgers 5-1.
That Watson-Allen-Palmer-Thorbjarnarson-Roby lineup didn’t fare as well in the second half, however, getting outscored 12-6 in two stints in the second half. In total, that group was minus-4 in 9:40.
“I thought Thorir came in and I thought he impacted the game in a really positive manner and earned a spot to play,” Miles said. “I knew I would try and play him, especially if we were struggling on offense and he came in right away and made an impact. When you’re reinvented out there and Tanner went down, and then I decided to play Thor, regardless if it was he or Palmer at the 4, we didn’t execute very well late, the last five or six minutes or whatever it was. We tried to run some actions and just screwed them up a little bit.”
The only other lineup that saw multiple stints on the court was one including Watson, Allen, Palmer, Roby and freshman Brady Heiman. In the first half, that group played 3:33 and outscored Wisconsin 8-5. However, Miles used it again in the second half for 1:52 and the Badgers outscored it 4-0 for a minus-1 in 5:25 overall.
The worst lineup was the second one Miles used, subbing Heiman in for Borchardt at the first media timeout. That group was on the court for 2:17 and was outscored 7-0, sparking the 16-1 run that put the Badgers in the driver’s seat. Heiman finished minus-11 in just under 11 minutes of playing time, grabbing two boards, missing a pair of free throws and turning the ball over once.
“I thought Brady just has to play his way in; we saw Brady play against very good competition — Creighton, Seton Hall — and do very good things, and now he’s a little bit of a shadow,” Miles said. “You just have to get him back out there, get his feet under him because there are some things that he just missed on again. In the first half I think we had two 3s, one with [D’Mitrik] Trice where he’s just not up and the other one with [Nate] Reuvers on a pick-and-pop. Just a few little things here and there. That’s the discovery process of those things, but you have to go through that for this guys to gain the confidence.”
Sophomore wing Nana Akenten continues to struggle mightily on both ends, and he was not a part of a single positive lineup on Tuesday. He finished 0-of-4 from the field with two rebounds in just over seven minutes, and he was minus-13. Freshman Amir Harris traveled once and grabbed one rebound in 6:35 of action and was plus-3, though Miles once again did not put him in the game in the second half until he waved the white flag late.
“We had guys in different positions we haven’t practiced very much,” Miles said. “That’s what tonight was. I thought we discovered a positive in Thor just making some plays and being scrappy. But at the same time, how many bench points — three — in how many minutes? Now they rebounded pretty well — I think they got 15, 16 rebounds — and that’s good. But we tried to feature a couple guys and couldn’t quite get them — we got them looks and they missed, and that happens. We’ve got to get them out of their funk.”
This game confirmed that starting Tanner Borchardt in place of Copeland was the right move (that lineup did well in the second half of the Ohio State game after Copeland got hurt as well), but that only goes so far if Borchardt continues to foul at this rate (7.5 per 40 minutes in conference play). If Borchardt can’t stay out not he floor for longer stretches, Miles has to find some rotations including bench players that works. Miles said the rotations we saw on Tuesday are by no means what he expects to roll with going forward.
“I would say we’re still in discovery mode on that,” Miles said. “I’m not willing to commit to anything but I am going to roll Thor back out there. I commend Thor; he sat there for a long time, didn’t groan, didn’t moan, kept a good attitude and when he stepped in and got his chance, he really made some great plays. That’s awesome; as a coach, you really admire that in him and I can’t say enough about that. In terms of where guys are, it’s open season.”
This is a big week on the practice court for the Huskers. Nebraska cannot afford to lose at Illinois on Saturday and it cannot look as dysfunctional and uncomfortable as it did against the Badgers. Guys have to settle into their new roles and find ways to contribute or the Huskers are not going to be able to pull themselves out of this downward spiral.
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.