LINCOLN — A small part of Tim Miles does enjoy this.
It’s very small. But it’s there.
“This isn’t the most fun I’ve had in my life,” Miles said with a laugh Tuesday. “But there is a challenge there that does give me a great deal of energy.”
Miles is a rebuilder. It is why Tom Osborne hired him in 2012. Rebuilding a season and reinventing a team in late January isn’t ideal, and it wasn’t on the itinerary for this season. But coaches, and teams, are made in adversity. And Miles and his team are in a boiling pot of it.
After dropping five in a row, and seven of nine, Miles and his team still believe this season is salvageable. They will try to prove it Wednesday night when they host No. 24 Maryland.
All the Huskers need is a spark to turn things around, Miles said.
The problem is, that’s hard to find when you shoot as poorly as they have during this losing streak.
In the past five games, Nebraska has shot a combined 34 percent from the floor and 29 for 113 from 3-point range. Just 26 percent.
But it hasn’t just been a recent problem, or even a problem borne out of a season-ending injury to senior forward Isaac Copeland.
Nebraska has the third-largest decline in shooting percentage over the course of this season, according to data collected by Matt Waite, a professor of journalism at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln currently teaching a course on sports data analysis. Waite calculated a 24 percent decrease in production in field-goal percentage when comparing the first 10 games of the season against the most recent five. NU is ahead of only Indiana, which has lost seven of its past eight, and N.C. State, which scored 24 points Saturday in a loss to Virginia Tech.
“We played at a really high level early. Don’t know what game that we trended down,” Miles said, adding that he thinks Nebraska’s three games in three weeks in December may have had something to do with it.
Nebraska was in a steady decline before Copeland tore his ACL against Ohio State. But when he went down, it only exacerbated the issue. The burden of replacing Copeland fell to James Palmer, Isaiah Roby and Glynn Watson.
All have become less efficient with the heavier load.
In Copeland’s last three games, Palmer shot 35 percent from the floor and was 7 for 18 from 3-point range, almost 40 percent. In his past two games, Palmer is averaging one shot more per game and shooting 28 percent from the floor. And he’s 3 for 14 from deep. With Copeland out, Palmer averages 18 points on 19.5 shots.
Roby’s usage rate has skyrocketed. When Copeland was on the floor, Roby shot about 6.6 times per game at 40 percent. With him gone, it’s up to 12 per game, at 33 percent.
Watson’s usage has hardly changed, but he’s played much worse. He has shot exactly as often with or without Copeland, about 11 times per game. But Watson is 0 for 11 from 3-point range in the past 80 minutes of play and is shooting just 22 percent from the floor with Copeland gone.
Usually, if any of his guys were shooting this poorly, Miles would take them out. But he can’t do that, he said.
“With this particular group, I think that it’s more of a case of, ‘I’m trying to do too much,’” Miles said. “You gotta trust your teammates. But instead we take a bad shot trying to do too much.”
Thomas Allen and Tanner Borchardt have actually done their parts so far. Allen is shooting 42 percent from the floor without Copeland, with 10.5 shots per game, which is up from about eight. But he’s also just 2 for 9 from 3-point range. Borchardt, with significantly more minutes, has made six of his last 10 shots. He was just 2 for 9 in Copeland’s last three games.
And still, Nebraska is getting zero help from its bench. In five games, reserves are a collective 7 for 31 from the floor. They’re shooting even more in Copeland’s absence.
Miles is trying to change the offense. He wants to attack the paint more. Wants a post touch and a kick-out or to move more early in possessions, then attack the gaps.
“We need a rhythm on offense,” he said. “But, quite frankly, I’m not as concerned about that in terms of, we’re reinventing ourselves without Isaac, and I’m way more concerned (with) what our rotation looks like, what can we run with this group, because we’re markedly smaller way more often, and certainly that concerns me.”
Maryland has the 50th most efficient defense in the country. The Terrapins are 105th in 3-point percentage defense and are near the bottom in the country in creating turnovers. Nebraska has to control Bruno Fernando, who scored 18 and grabbed 17 rebounds in the last matchup in January. And the Huskers have to show up mentally ready to play, Miles said.
But making shots has been critical to the Huskers’ success this season. The misfiring has to change. And quickly.
“Husker basketball has been tough on the fans in years past, and it’s not like we’re not trying to do our best,” Borchardt said. “I mean, we’re giving it our all every night and shots aren’t falling. But if you stick with us, we’re gonna try and turn this thing around.”