Thursday evening’s Gavitt Tipoff Games match-up featured two teams in Nebraska and St. John’s that have spent the last few years in their respective conferences. Over the last couple seasons, they’ve upgraded their talent level via both the high school ranks and the transfer market. This season, both teams were hoping to break out and take a step forward.
However, when the dust settled after a 79-56 beatdown by the Johnnies, the Huskers looked a heck of a lot like the same team we saw late last season, regardless of the new faces.
Poor 3-point shooting? Poor finishing? More turnovers than assists? Extended scoring droughts? All the hallmarks of a typical bad Nebraska basketball team were present.
The Red Storm, who didn’t exactly light the world on fire themselves (shooting 43.5 percent from the field, 29.4 percent from 3-point range and 70 percent from the free-throw line) still looked like world-beaters compared to their opponent.
Nebraska’s offense is broken. Before the season, Coach Tim Miles was high on this team’s ability to knock down 3-pointers, but so far that hasn’t been the case. Nebraska is shooting 27.1 percent through three games, 300th in the country. However, the Huskers are even worse (comparatively) inside the arc, as they’ve hit just 40 percent of their 2-point attempts, 320th in the country.
A big part of those terrible percentages has been shot selection. Anton Gill, in his first game of the season after missing most of last year, fired up six 3-pointers in 24 minutes. He hit one of them. Isaac Copeland took four triples. He missed all four. He’s now 0-of-8, and most of his misses have been total bricks. That is a lot of empty possessions, and many of them led to run-outs by St. John’s.
Inside the arc, Nebraska shot 10-of-31 and got blocked 10 times. The Huskers struggled to anticipate help defense and drove in out of control all game long. Evan Taylor shot 1-of-5 inside the arc, with most of those around the rim. He got blocked twice. James Palmer Jr. was 3-of-8 and got blocked three times. Glynn Watson Jr. was 1-of-4 and got blocked twice.
To review, Nebraska’s three best guards shot 5-of-17 inside the arc. That is how extended scoring droughts happen. Copeland, expected to be another primary scoring option for this team, shot 2-of-5 inside the arc. He’s shooting 31.8 percent overall from the field through three games (last season, Michael Jacobson shot 39.1 percent on 1.4 less shots per game).
Nebraska is getting almost no production (15 points on 5-of-13 shooting) from its three-headed center combination. If Nebraska isn’t going to get easy points inside from the bigs, the guards have to carry the load and they couldn’t do it against a St. John’s team that is coming off of a 14-19 season and is led by a pair of sophomore guards.
Nebraska’s starting backcourt (made up of a senior and two juniors) accounted for 27 points, 11 rebounds, five assists and nine turnovers. By himself, St. John's sophomore Shamorie Ponds put up 22 points, seven rebounds, five assists and one turnover.
Watson and Palmer are Nebraska’s two best players, and the Huskers don’t have a chance of competing when they play the way they did on Thursday.
Palmer led the team with 13 points on 4-of-10 shooting and five rebounds, but he turned the ball over three times, was somewhat invisible during some of those scoring droughts and didn’t make the little plays. On one possession I remember specifically, Nebraska forced St. John’s into a tough shot that missed. As the ball clanked off the rim, Palmer stood near the block and watched as his man ran right by him for a put-back. Palmer got going early in the second half with a few quick buckets, but after finishing a tough layup through a foul, Palmer started talking trash to his defender right in front of the official and was T’d up.
As for Watson, he played just 25 minutes because of foul trouble after a couple of dumb fouls. Already saddled with three fouls about seven minutes into the second half, Watson allowed himself to get baited into committing an offensive foul with a push off. Obviously players have to hit the shot in order for a player to get an assist, but Watson finished without an assist in the game and has just five in three games.
Defense is supposed to be the strength of Miles’ teams, making the defense almost as disappointing as the offense. The quickness in the backcourt and the athleticism on the wings is a tough matchup for most teams including Nebraska. That being the case, if a team can’t guard one-on-one, the help defense has to be there, especially for a team that is supposed to play pack-line man-to-man.
Yet Ponds, Marcus LoVett, Justin Simon and Bashir Ahmed went to the basket all game long with very little resistance. St. John’s had just two assists on 14 field goals in the first half and got to the line 12 times. Where was the help defense? Every time Nebraska went to the rim there was a shot-blocker waiting.
The worst defensive possession of the game came right at the end of the half. Gill converted a four-point play with less than six seconds remaining in the half. After the free throw, St. John’s got the ball inbounded to Lovett and the 5-foot-10 guard went the length of the floor and laid the ball in as time expired. Nobody stopped the ball and nobody seriously challenged the shot at the basket. Nebraska had a chance to get some momentum heading into the second half and immediately gave it right back to the Red Storm.
Nebraska had a definite size advantage at almost every position yet allowed 16 offensive rebounds on 44 opportunities. That means St. John’s got the ball back on more than a third of its misses, meaning even when Nebraska did play solid defense (or perhaps as much or more often, St. John’s took a bad shot) it didn’t matter as the Huskers didn’t finish the play.
There are a lot of new pieces on this team and the Huskers are still figuring things out, but with the two exhibition games plus the closed scrimmage during the preseason, Miles said this team was as ready as any team he’s had for the season to get underway.
The Huskers certainly weren’t ready on Thursday evening. Technicals, frustration fouls, failure to box out, no help side defense, poor shot selection all coalesced to create a 23-point beatdown for the Huskers.
Nebraska simply didn’t show any discipline.
It better find some soon. St. John’s isn’t even close to the best (or most disciplined) team they’ll play during nonconference play.
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.