The Nebraska Cornhuskers program wants to finish stronger this season than last year’s near basement dwelling foray that saw it stumble into a second-to-last spot in the Big Ten, only ahead of Rutgers. After two wins at home to open up the 2017-18 season, the Huskers fell hard against a smaller, better-shooting St. John’s team Thursday night in Queens, N.Y.
The 79-56 loss against a Red Storm team hoping to climb out of its own downstairs mess in the Big East was the Huskers’ first real test in this young season. Nebraska’s only success, it seemed, was a 5-2 lead early in the game.
If Nebraska (2-1) wants to become a contender in the Big Ten, it’ll have to improve on certain aspects of its game that failed against St. John’s, namely rebounding -- the Red Storm brought down 50 boards, while the taller Huskers only had 39 -- and better ball-handling (the Huskers finished with 16 turnovers).
The Red Storm even turned one of the Huskers’ bright spots -- statistically one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country -- on its head, blocking 10 Nebraska shots.
And on offense, Nebraska shot a mere 28 percent from the floor. James Palmer, Jr. finished the St. John’s game with a team-high 13 points and three offensive boards in his 27 minutes on the court. This comes after another team-leading 18-point night against North Texas on Nov. 13. St. John’s held 6-foot junior guard Glynn Watson, Jr. to five points.
The Huskers will have a chance to regain some momentum heading into this weekend, as they host a 2-1 North Dakota team that struggled against both Troy and Hawaii.
But it doesn’t get easier from there. Nebraska will head to Florida to play in the Thanksgiving weekend Advocare Invitational, tipping off first against Central Florida -- another big team that fell a game short of an NIT championship opportunity last year -- before having to face either Marist or West Virginia.
The Dec. 3 Big Ten opener on the road at Michigan State is still weeks away, but if Nebraska wants to show any signs of life against the top-tier Spartans, it’ll have to find some confidence on the boards and on defense. If they can turn the fight in the paint into points against North Dakota on Sunday and throughout the Thanksgiving tournament, the Huskers can at least make some noise against Izzo’s squad.
Also, Palmer, who transferred last year from Miami to log more minutes in Lincoln, and Watson are leading the team in scoring so far. Tim Miles will have to find a way to keep these guys relevant as the season grinds on -- and find a supporting cast to come to their aid.
If you’re a Huskers fan who hopes your team can find itself at least a few spots ahead of Rutgers when the season comes to a close, you better hope they start to perform better against programs like St. John’s.
While the North Dakota game shouldn’t be a yawner, it probably won’t be a cakewalk, either. If Nebraska struggles against the Fighting Hawks -- or even drops the game -- it’ll be difficult to gain traction between then and the Big Ten opener.