The Nebraska Cornhuskers have struggled to transform into a relevant team since the hiring of Tim Miles in 2012.
The inability to consistently compete in its conference, whether in the Big Ten or Big 12, was a common theme for Nebraska before Miles took over as well.
Under previous head coach Doc Sadler, the Cornhuskers put together four winning seasons in six years. Although Sadler took Nebraska to the NIT on three separate occasions, Sadler’s Cornhuskers never made the NCAA tournament.
Before the 2011-’12 season, the Cornhuskers decided to leave the Big 12 to join the Big Ten. When Nebraska stumbled to a 12-18 (4-14) record that season, the coaching transition to Miles was made. Sadler’s overall record at Nebraska was 101-88, with an 0-3 record in postseason play.
Although the Cornhuskers continued to struggle in the Big Ten during Miles’ first season, finishing 15-18 (5-13), he soon achieved something the previous two Nebraska coaches did not.
Miles led the Cornhuskers to a 19-13 (11-7) record the following year and brought Nebraska to the NCAA tournament. Though the Cornhuskers lost 74-60 to Baylor in the round of 64, this was Nebraska’s first NCAA tournament appearance since the 1997-’98 season.
Breaking the Cornhuskers’ 16-year March Madness drought in only two full seasons gave the impression that Miles was going to finally turn it around for Nebraska basketball.
However, the 2013-’14 season has been an outlier compared to Miles’ following seasons with Nebraska.
Miles landed Ed Morrow and Glynn Watson Jr, two ESPN top 100 recruits, over the course of the next two seasons following Nebraska’s NCAA tournament bid. However, the Cornhuskers failed to finish above .500 in each of those two seasons.
Nebraska finished 13-18 (5-13) in the 2014-’15 season, the year after Nebraska finally cracked the field of 68. The 2015-’16 season was similar for Miles and company, as the Cornhuskers ended the season in 11th in the Big Ten with a 16-18 (6-12) record.
Miles again appeared to turn a corner for Nebraska this season when he led the Cornhuskers to their first 3-0 start in conference play in 41 years. But, since then, Nebraska has hardly generated any consistent success in the Big Ten. The Cornhuskers currently sit in 11th place in the Big Ten with a 12-17 (6-11) record.
Let’s take a look at how things have shaped up for the Cornhuskers this season.
Two of Nebraska’s key returning players from the 2015-’16 season have missed significant time this season due to serious injuries.
Junior guard Anton Gill suffered a season-ending ruptured patella tendon during practice only 12 games into the 2016-’17 season. Gill scored in double figures in two of his 12 contests. Since Nebraska’s only senior is Tai Webster, Gill provided some much needed maturity when he was in the lineup.
Ed Morrow also missed seven consecutive games with a foot injury in the heat of Nebraska’s conference schedule. The Cornhuskers were left searching for answers in the low post without Morrow in their lineup.
The Cornhuskers went 1-6 in the seven games Morrow watched from the sidelines. Morrow has proven to be a crucial piece to Nebraska’s success. The Cornhuskers are 5-5 in conference play when the sophomore forward is in its lineup.
According to the RPI, Nebraska has the hardest schedule in all of Division 1.
Having a significantly depleted roster while having the most difficult schedule in the NCAA will rarely allow a team to win many games. Nebraska has been forced to learn that the hard way.
-Underwhelming Offensive Production
Even for the short amount of time in which Nebraska has been fully healthy, it has struggled to put points on the board. It only got worse when injuries struck
Besides Tai Webster and Glynn Watson Jr, no Cornhusker averages double-digit points per game. There are only two other teams in the Big Ten, Iowa and Illinois, that have less than three players scoring at least 10 points per game.
Nebraska’s 71.6 points per game ranks 12th amongst all 14 Big Ten teams.
The Cornhuskers team field goal percentage of only 41.9 is the third worst in the Big Ten. Similarly, Nebraska has thrown up plenty of bricks from three-point range. The Cornhuskers have converted only 32.4 percent of their three-pointers this season, second worst in the Big Ten.
While it’s evident Nebraska has struggled on the offensive end, its performance on defense has been just as rocky.
The Cornhuskers are allowing an average of 72.2 points per game. This mark ranks as the third-worst scoring defense in the Big Ten. It also ranks the Cornhuskers as only the 186th best scoring defense in Division 1.
Nebraska has allowed Big Ten opponents to score at least 80 points in 41.2 percent of its conference games. When a team often struggles to score 70 points and allows opponents to shoot 44.2 percent from the floor, losses tend to pile up.
The Cornhuskers are prone to falling apart on defense as each game wears on. Nebraska has allowed Big Ten opponents to score at least 40 points in the second half in 11 of its 17 conference games. Whether it’s from fatigue or lacking the maturity to defensively execute for the full 40 minutes, Nebraska’s ineffective second-half defense is responsible for many of its losses.
But, what has gone right?
Let’s take a look.
-Second and Third Chance Opportunities
Though Nebraska has not flourished on offense, its struggles have not consisted of too many one-shot possessions.
The Cornhuskers are exceptional in terms of collecting offensive rebounds and creating opportunities off the glass.
Nebraska’s 13.2 offensive boards per game this season is second best in the Big Ten only behind Rutgers. Morrow and Michael Jacobson can take a lot of credit for the Cornhuskers’ dominance on the offensive glass.
Morrow leads the Big Ten with an average of 3.2 offensive rebounds per game. The sophomore forward’s 7.5 total rebounds per game are eighth best in the conference.
Jacobson is close behind Morrow in both categories. The Waukee, Iowa product is third in the Big Ten in offensive rebounds with 3.0 per game. Jacobson is also the tenth best total rebounder in the conference, averaging 6.4 per game.
While the impressive offensive rebounding hasn’t translated to many victories, it may be promising in the near future since Morrow and Jacobson both have two years of eligibility remaining on the Cornhuskers.
Webster has flat-out been one of the best players in the Big Ten this season. The New Zealand product has filled up the stat sheet on a nightly basis.
Webster has scored at least 20 points in nine games this season, four of which have been in conference play. The senior guard is averaging 17.8 points per game and has not scored below 10 in a game this season. Webster is the third highest scorer in the Big Ten, ranking behind Iowa’s Peter Jok and Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan.
There has also not been a game this season in which Webster has failed to record an assist. Webster has dished out an average of four assists this season, the sixth best in the Big Ten.
Webster’s stellar play hasn’t only been on the offensive end. The six-foot-four guard has had particularly slick hands on defense. Webster ranks fourth in the Big Ten in steals, behind his teammate Watson Jr, with 1.4 per game.
The senior guard only trails Michigan’s Zak Irvin in minutes per game this season.
Without Webster in its lineup next season, Nebraska will need a new leader and someone that has the ability to take over a game. Watson Jr is averaging 13.4 points per game and has shot 42.9 percent from the floor this season as a sophomore. Watson Jr is a likely candidate to fill Webster’s shoes. The Cornhuskers desperately need Watson Jr to continue to improve next season in order to put a winning team on the court.
-Playing to Level of Competition
In some ways, this can be seen as a bad thing. Especially considering that Nebraska lost to Gardner Webb 70-62 at home and barely squeaked by Southern, 81-76.
However, for a team like the Cornhuskers that has struggled to win games, it’s encouraging that many of their losses have not been blowouts. And that really is the case.
Nebraska has lost six games this season to power-five opponents by eight points or less. Five of these contests were within Big Ten play.
This included a four-game stretch in which Nebraska just couldn’t put it together in the closing minutes.
The streak started with an eight-point defeat to Northwestern, followed by a six-point loss against Michigan on the road. The games only got closer from there. The Cornhuskers then lost to Ohio State at home 67-66. Next, Nebraska suffered a second-straight one-point defeat to Rutgers.
It’s evident Nebraska has had little trouble competing with better teams. However, it has lacked the necessary late-game execution to convert close losses into wins.
Next season, the front-runners to crack the Cornhuskers’ starting lineup are Watson Jr, Morrow, Jack McVeigh, Jacobson, and Evan Taylor. Four of which will be juniors and one will be a senior.
With a more mature lineup next year, the Cornhuskers can anticipate coming out on top in more of their close contests.
Given the poor cards Miles has been dealt this season, he deserves another chance to rejuvenate Nebraska.
Miles has all of the pieces laid out for him next season. The Cornhuskers return six of their leading scorers from the 2016-’17 season in Watson Jr, Morrow, Jacobson, McVeigh, Taylor, and Jordy Tshimanga.
Nebraska will also add 6’6 guard Nana Akenten from Bolingbrook, IL, its only incoming recruit for next season.
Akenten is also decently familiar with Watson and Morrow’s styles of play. The two are also from Illinois and grew up near Akenten. Miles and his staff are hoping Akenten will be able to immediately contribute to the Webster-less Cornhuskers.
If Miles once again fails to put a competitive team on the floor next season, he will be on an extremely short leash and his job could be in jeopardy.
Miles’ overall record with Nebraska through nearly five full seasons with the Cornhuskers is 75-83. The 13-year Division 1 head coach is undoubtedly on the hot seat.