Overall this season, Nebraska (11-4, 1-3) is 13th in the country in points allowed per game at 61.3.
The Huskers are also 13th in the Big Ten through four conference games at 78.0 points per game allowed including 93 at Iowa in Sunday’s loss. Nebraska is going to have to fix that if the Huskers hope to get things turned around, and that started in practice this week.
“I thought [practice] was good yesterday,” Coach Tim Miles said. “We just went back to some real basic things. I thought a couple things that were hurting us on the defensive end, for instance, just getting back in transition and guarding screen-and-roll. We just spent a lot of time on those two things yesterday.”
Nebraska allowed 29 fast break points by the Hawkeyes on Sunday. What was the issue in Miles eyes?
Maryland and Iowa combined shot 18-of-39 (46.2 percent) from 3 against the Huskers. Nebraska is last in the Big Ten in 3-point percentage allowed in conference games at 43.5 percent. Their pick-and-roll defense has been less than spectacular as well.
“We started the year off a great defensive team, holding opponent’s to a great percentage, low scoring,” senior center Tanner Borchardt said. “Somehow we got away from that the past two games — the past probably four or five games, actually — and we just can’t do that. So the last couple of practices we’ve just been breaking down the fundamentals, starting from the bottom — screen-and-roll defense, closing out to shooters, and basically the stuff you learn the first day of practice, we’re basically doing it right now just to rebuild what we had a month or so ago. That always has been our identity, defense, and I think we’re just getting back to it.”
Amir Harris is a plus defender on the wing coming off the bench, but he was playing less than 12 minutes per game. All of the key pieces of Nebraska’s elite defense are still present and accounted for.
“We didn’t lose our defensive skills; we still knew what to do,” Borchardt said. “But I think just the poor performances we’ve had on the floor, I think Coach was right to just take a practice or two to just hit the pause button and say, just as a reminder, this is what we stand for, this is our identity.”
After three straight losses on the road in Big Ten play, the Huskers will return home to host a 7-8 Penn State team that is 0-4 in league play. Miles isn’t expecting an easy win, however, even in the friendly confines for Pinnacle Bank Arena.
“Pat Chambers has got a team that is just a relentless group,” Miles said. “I was just watching the Michigan game last night. They just keep coming at you no matter what. Michigan’s really, really good, and they don’t go away, they hang around, they’re physical. They’ve got Mike Watkins who’s a difference-maker. Lamar Stevens is an all-conference type of player. They’ve got young guards with Myles Dread and the [Rasir] Bolton kid. Really what you lost was Tony Carr and Shep Garner, which were two really, really good guards, and now these other guys like Josh Reaves and these other guys are a year older, but it’s still an adjustment in the Big Ten. And any time you’re weak in one area in this league, they’ll make you pay. We found that out and we’ve also been able to do it to people. You know Pat’s team is going to come in here fighting. They always have and they always do.”
Stevens, a 6-foot-8 forward, is leading the Nittany Lions at 18.9 points and 8.1 rebounds per game. Slowing him down will be Nebraska’s first priority.
“When I look at him, I just think that his strength and power are so impressive,” Miles said. “He plays really good in isolation and can make 3s. he has not shot the 3 as well as he did, but we’re not going to let him get a 3, or we’re going to try at least. I just think that he’s such a strong player. His physicality is really good.”
Bolton, a freshman, is second 13.1 points per game and is leading the team in 3-point shooting at 40 percent. Senior wing Josh Reaves is on the best defenders in the Big Ten and will likely draw the James Palmer Jr. assignment for most of the night. Mike Watkins, the double-double machine and defensive force in the middle, has only played in 10 games with six starts after dealing with some personal issues to start the season. He’s at 7.5 points and 7.6 rebounds in 20 minutes per game. Penn State is one of the worst offensive teams in the country (last in the Big Ten in scoring, 300th nationally) so if there’s ever been a get-right game it’s this one for the Nebraska defense.
Playing in front of the Pinnacle Bank Arena crowd should help that as well.
“I think it’s going to have a positive impact on us, just to be on our home floor, the crowd, get that energy going and hopefully that gives us a boost,” Borchardt said. “Not to skip over this game, but once this game is over, whatever the outcome, just to take that same energy onto the road. I think playing at home is always just a huge advantage for us. If we can get one done here, then take that same energy on the road.”
Tipoff is set for 8 p.m. CST on ESPN2 with Jason Benetti and Robbie Hummel on the call.
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.