It’s Friday. Let’s get to it.
1. Roby’s Rise
Nebraska lost but against Iowa last Sunday, Isaiah Roby had maybe one of his most complete games of the season on the offensive end. The junior forward went for 17 points on 8-of-10 shooting with nine boards and no turnovers. Jacob Padilla broke down his game here and you should definitely read it.
Roby remains a very enigmatic force in Nebraska’s locker room; at times he looks ready to take over a game and at others, he looks unsure of his own abilities. The joke is he doesn’t know how good he is. I think it’s more a case of not knowing when to assert himself.
You look at the kid — 6-foot-8, long arms, springy legs, quick first step — and you know he’s going to have some form of advantage against virtually any defender he faces. It’s what makes the six and six games (Texas Tech; 37 minutes) and the five and seven games (Oklahoma State; 27 minutes) so frustrating. That game-alterer is in there and it just doesn’t come out consistently enough.
Perhaps the best game of his career is a springboard. Because his performance against Penn State on Thursday was the best performance of his career.
Roby looked a man possessed, going for a career-high 22 points and 11 rebounds on 8-for-9 shooting with no turnovers in 38 minutes. But more importantly, he looked a man who knew there was not a Nittany Lion in front of him who could stop him from imposing his will.
Nebraska’s second bucket of the night was a Roby triple. He floated to the corner, Isaac Copeland kicked him the ball, Penn State’s Mike Watkins (who couldn’t keep up with Roby on the perimeter at all so was understandably slow to close out) didn’t even get a hand up and Roby let his shot fly absent of any hesitation.
All it takes.
That one shot meant he could do this a few minutes later.
And this in the second half.
If you want Roby to take those open 3s instead of driving, that’s fine. It’s more a stylistic preference than anything else, given the fact he’s not stopping and popping from mid-range, but whatever. The thing to point out here, though, isn’t really the shots themselves but what the movement says.
There’s no hesitation. No second-guessing. There’s a sense of knowing where your spots are on the floor. Roby’s a capable 3-point shooter (31 percent on the season) but his physical profile and touch inside also makes him a more-than-capable finisher at the rim. He’s crafty in ways most guys his size aren’t and he’s got pretty good body control on his drives.
Roby can dunk all day long but what I’m more interested in here is the awareness to cut when Copeland loses his dribble and gets trapped on the baseline. Quietly, one of the knocks on Roby’s game is his feel on the offensive end. Sometimes he just doesn’t look like he knows where the play is going to be made. Here, he operates off instinct and slashes to the hoop.
Personally, I like Roby in the post because of what it does for Nebraska’s spacing. If he’s floating to the corner off a screen-and-roll but not doing anything, it takes away one of Nebraska’s more versatile offensive threats. But, if he’s going to start launching jumpers after slipping those screens, that works too, because the threat of a Roby triple is one thing but a couple Roby makes opens him up to attack just about every spot on the floor. Just be more decisive with it.
If the Penn State game is the start of something with Roby, Nebraska will be all the better for it.
2. Rebounding Questions
If there was public rebounding data in college basketball that showed rebounding by lineups, I’d venture to say Nebraska’s starting five would look pretty bad. As it is now, the Huskers are being out-rebounded on the season and killed on the offensive boards (they give up 12 a night).
You almost expect that to be the case given the small ball Nebraska plays, but in the last two games the Huskers have been out-rebounded 79-59 and the bench has been essentially forgotten.
Reserve center Tanner Borchardt played 13 minutes against Iowa and had four fouls. Freshman big Brady Heiman played nine minutes against Iowa and didn’t step on the court against Penn State.
There is currently no one on the Husker roster averaging more than seven rebounds a night. Nine Big Ten teams have at least one guy doing that. The best rebounding big Nebraska has, statistically, is Heiman, who grabs nearly 12 per 40 minutes on the court. But if he’s not going to play, Nebraska needs its guards to be better on the glass. Per 40, James Palmer Jr. is pulling down fewer rebounds than last season. So is Thomas Allen Jr.
Penn State got 21 offensive boards to Nebraska’s six. That’s the 11th time this season Nebraska has been beaten on the offensive glass and the fifth time in the last six games its been beaten on the boards overall. That's probably the biggest question mark moving forward, because there's not really a clear path to fixing it.
3. Defense is Back
Here's the final thing on men's basketball.
After back-to-back opponents shot north of 45 percent against Nebraska, the defense returned against Penn State and Nebraska notched its seventh game this season holding an opponent under 40 percent shooting.
Roby led the charge.
At Pinnacle Bank Arena, the Huskers feed off the crowd and the crowd feeds off defensive plays more than anything else. So, Nebraska works its tail off on defense. On Monday, I wrote that hasn't necessarily been the case when the team hits the road.
We'll have to see if the re-focusing on that end of the floor against Penn State was just that — a re-focusing and things will be better away from home moving forward — or if it was the same old, same old. The Huskers are at Indiana next Monday with a chance to knock off a ranked Hoosier squad. By field goal percentage, Indiana is the second-best shooting team in the country. Nebraska has its work cut out for it.
But not if it plays like it played Thursday.
Watson is a pesky on-ball defender. He does well here to defend without fouling and Palmer helps just enough to stop PSU's Rasir Bolton from driving right. So Bolton goes back left and finds a screen. Watson fights over and pokes the ball loose.
Watch Roby on the play. He sees the loose ball and starts to go after before recognizing what's about to happen and retreating to his guy under the basket. When Bolton starts to cut to the hoop, Roby identifies it right away and gets over to contest. Bolton goes too high to avoid getting his shot blocked and Roby cleans it up.
That's defense on a string. All five guys are aware of what's happening away from them while also staying on their assignments. Roby was once again a defensive stopper in the middle and the guys around him didn't gamble in spots they shouldn't.
4. Nebraska Love
From the Orlando Sentinel (BIANCHI!!!) to Athlon and USA Today and ESPN, there’s preseason love for Nebraska football again.
As Way-Too-Early Top 25 polls go, Nebraska finds itself anywhere from 18th to 25th following the conclusion of the 2018 season. Being a blue blood and a generally exciting follow again is pretty much all you need to get ranked in those kinds of preseason polls but the respect might be coming back to Lincoln and that's a good thing. College football is better when Nebraska is good.
When ESPN did it's end-of-the-season recap video, the only mention of the Huskers in 2018 was Caleb Lightbourn's now-infamous onside kick flub against Ohio State. I suspect that won't be the case again when we put a bow on 2019. Many of us close to the Huskers saw the 0-6 start same as everybody else, but were able to see beyond the record because if you watched the team day in and day out you knew it wasn't as bad as it looked.
In the second half of the season, when the schedule got a little lighter and things started to even out, national attention started to come for good reasons. For a lot of reasons, this universal love of a team that has gone 8-16 in its last two seasons is predictable.
Preseason polls are stupid, I've always thought, and usually wrong. Predicting the 25 best teams a year from now is a crapshoot. But in this instance, I think it's a good thing for Nebraska.
One, you've really got to be at least on the radar for pollsters early on if you have any hope of making noise. Two, it shows people aren't looking past the Huskers anymore. And three, it sets things up perfectly for the season.
Have you seen the schedule?
South Alabama and Northern Illinois in the non-conference should both be wins. Northern Illinois is replacing a really good coach. So is Colorado, who Nebraska travels to in Week 2 for what will likely be a heated game but one the Huskers should win. The Big Ten opener is Illinois on the road.
What if Nebraska goes 4-0 to open the season? And what if Nebraska was something like No. 24 before it kicked off the season? How high would they be in the rankings by the time Sept. 28 rolls around and Ryan Day and Ohio State come to town?
I don't know what the Buckeyes are going to look like in 2019, but seeing Scott Frost in a ranked showdown under the lights of Memorial Stadium — his first such game as the Husker head coach — is the stuff dreams are made of. What if there was magic that night and Nebraska pulled a win out?
They're 5-0 with a win over The Ohio State University. You've got Northwestern at home, Minnesota on the road and Indiana at home before things heat back up again.
It's game on at that point.
Obviously putting the cart way before the horse here but it feels good to be having these types of conversations again, doesn't it?
5. What’s Going on in the East?
Because I have no idea.
Michigan State scored two offensive touchdowns in the final four games of its season and finished with an offensive S&P+ ranking of 117, had the most returning production of any team in college football and a top-five defense in the country and only managed a 7-6 season. And no one got fired. Head coach Mark Dantonio instead elected to just reshuffle job titles amongst his offensive staff.
Michigan lost its defensive line and linebacker coaches to Ohio State and we’re all talking about whether Jim Harbaugh should be on the hot seat with a 38-14 record in four years in Ann Arbor.
Penn State has, like, vanished from the public conscience, no one knows what to expect from Maryland and Ohio State might be the biggest wild card in all of college football.
Is this the year the West finally takes the conference back? A West team has yet to win a conference championship under the current conference alignment.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.