What is wrong with Nebrasketball?
Nebraska began the season nationally ranked and has an All-American who is among the nation’s scoring leaders. So how in the world are the Huskers 5-3 after Wednesday’s loss to Incarnate Word?
We are in the midst of something resembling a basketball renaissance in the state of Nebraska, and this was supposed to be the season where the state university stepped to the forefront of the movement.
The hype was understandable. The Huskers were coming off their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998, and were returning a legitimate All-American candidate in junior forward Terran Petteway. Both the coaches and the Associated Press took notice, slotting Nebraska at No. 21 in each of their preseason polls.
Less than a month later, the national rankings are the least of head coach Tim Miles’ team’s concerns.
Despite playing a non-conference schedule that was widely criticized before the season for being too soft, the Huskers are just 5-3. They fell out of the polls following an overtime loss at Rhode Island on Nov. 22 that caught the nation’s attention. Two weeks later, a bigger blow came when Nebraska fell by 10 on its home floor to in-state rival Creighton. It was the Bluejays’ fourth straight win in the series, and won which stung NU especially hard considering this was supposed to be the season — thanks to the departure of national Player of the Year Doug McDermott — they got to carry the flag as the state’s national power.
Then came Wednesday night.
Incarnate Word 74, Nebraska 73.
The Incarnate Word Cardinals, for those of you unaware, are in just their second season of play in Division-I. They made the jump from Division-II last year, and though they are playing as a member of the Southland Conference, the Word won’t be eligible for postseason play until 2018. Wednesday’s game was the first they had ever played against a team from the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 or SEC.
In summary, Nebraska probably shouldn’t have lost this one.
This all leads to the question of what exactly the issue is here.
For starters, Nebraska only has two guys who are scoring right now. Petteway is doing what everyone expected and averaging 20.6 ppg, and fellow junior Shavon Shields has stepped up his production dramatically to average 18.3 ppg. After that, no other Cornhusker is averaging more than 6.8 ppg.
Opponents aren’t respecting any players besides Petteway and Shields because the supporting cast keeps failing to give them a reason to. Forward Walter Pitchford was a lethal outside threat a season ago, shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc. He has connected on just 10-of-37 3-point attempts through eight games this year. Sophomore guard Tai Webster was expected to take a gigantic step forward thanks to an increased role this season, but he’s averaging just 6.3 points and has misfired on 21 of his 25 3-point attempts.
All of this has led to way too many possessions where the other three Nebraska players on the court stand around and simply wait for Petteway or Shields to make a play … which is hard to do with five defenders solely focused on stopping two guys. It’s also likely had an effect on the way the Cornhuskers are playing on the other end of the court.
Few teams, just 21 to be exact, are defending the perimeter more poorly than Nebraska right now. Opponents are taking 40.3 percent of their shots against the Cornhuskers from beyond the arc, and that’s mostly because NU is allowing them to.
This is not what you want.
Neither is this.
Two of those were part of the 10 threes Creighton made in the game, and the other was one of the Bluejays’ 23 largely uncontested attempts from beyond the arc, one less than Incarnate Word put up Wednesday night.
Bad shots are leading to bad attitudes which is leading to bad defense. Miles admitted as much after the Creighton loss.
“We got to a point where other guys tried to force – because they weren’t being guarded or whatever, they tried to do something they normally don’t or can’t, but they wanted to stay aggressive,” Miles said. “Once we struggled on offense, we just did not defend as well, bottom line.”
Getting senior forward Leslee Smith — who is recovering from an ACL tear — will be a boon to Nebraska’s frontcourt, but it’s not going to do anything to aid the Huskers’ perimeter issues on offense and defense.
Nebraska needs guys besides Shields and Petteway to make shots, there’s no question about that. But even if those shots continue to find nothing but iron, the Huskers simply can’t let that frustration stay with them down to the other end of the court. If they aren’t mentally strong enough to correct that issue before the start of conference play, then there’s little hope of them evolving into the type of team we all thought they could be before the start of the season.