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TWIWBB: Lincoln, We Have a Problem

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This week in Husker women's basketball would like to forget the start of B1G play. The Huskers drop their first two conference games and looked outmatched in 6 of those 8 quarters. What ails the Big Red? we take a look.

David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Huskers are now 9-4 overall and 0-2 in B1G play after dropping consecutive games to #25 Iowa and #14 Northwestern. The Huskers are no longer receiving votes in the polls and have even dropped out of ESPN predictions for the NCAA tournament. They sit at a miserable 124 in RPI.

Nebraska was not terribly competitive in in the first half against Iowa but did manage a furious comeback that closed the gap to within three late. Northwestern showed no mercy and absolutely hammered the Huskers from the opening tip.

This team has the pieces in place to be winning games against ranked teams. The Huskers have the luxury of a former All-American, Rachel Theriot, at point guard (who is 6’0" to boot) and two shooting guards that can score from anywhere on the floor. All three play some pretty good defense, especially Romeo who attacks the ball like a pit bull. True post presence has been a problem for the Big Red in the past. No longer. Freshman forward Jess Shepard has more height than we have seen recently (6’4") and has been producing statistics at a level beyond any other freshman in school history. Her frontcourt mate is also a freshman. Rachel Blackburn (6’3") is a more typical Yori post player in that she is tough on defense (she can take a charge like a champ) and offers moderate scoring (currently 6 pts per game). Her fiery personality on the court is what sets her apart in many ways.

Yet, they are not winning games against teams with equal talent. Why?

That is not as easy to figure out. I did some digging and will highlight two major reasons.

Lack of cohesion

Romeo and Theriot are the only returning starters from last year. Even then, Romeo became a starter when Theriot went down with a season-ending ankle injury. None of the five on the floor have played significant minutes together until this season.

*Update - added Wednesday morning 7:20* I almost forgot that three of the current starters lost most of last season to major injuries. Theriot had to have ankle surgery and did not play the second half of the season. Kyndal Clark and Jess Shepard both are rehabbing serious knee injuries that cost them most of last season. High-level athletes that are getting used to playing with new teammates as well as having to trust their own legs again....well, it is not a recipe for instant chemistry.

I expected too much too fast

My general views on the talent and recruiting for Nebraska are still clouded by the Big 12. The B1G is a much more formidable (top to bottom) conference than the Big 12 (top heavy). After I dug into some recruiting information (eyes glazing over) I quickly realized that I overestimated the talent in Lincoln. Nebraska is certainly not bereft of talented players, but the recruiting stars and rankings of the Big Ten overall were much better than I expected.

As a general rule, the B1G recruiting classes appear to be almost exclusively made up of ESPN100 players with the average B1G team signing 3 of them and four or five B1G teams being in the top 20 national class rankings each year.

Three years of marginal recruiting/retention (2012-14) have taken a toll on the Big Red that was buffered by the highly accomplished 2011 class (which just graduated last spring).

In 2012, Theriot was the only recruit (4*, but not in the ESPN100). The 2013 class only consisted of 2 players; Tvrdy (low 3* that has since transferred) and Allie Havers (no rating; currently the first Husker off the bench).

The Huskers signed three ESPN100 recruits in 2014. Two of them, Kaylee Page (5*), and Chandler Smith (4*) have since transferred. Romeo (4*) is the only remaining "top" player. The other two members of the class (Cincore and Washington) were both 3* and are not played heavily.

All three members of Nebraska’s 2015 class (Shepard, Blackburn, Simon) are ESPN100 players. The class ranked in the top 10 nationally until the departure of Lanie Page (4* and ESPN100). Of all classes currently making up the Husker roster, only the 2015 group compares to the B1G standard in perceived talent.

Looking at 2016 class, things flip a bit. Most B1G teams (Nebraska included) only have 1 or 2 ESPN100 recruits signed (except for Maryland which has the top class nationally with 5 ESPN100 recruits). Since most of those girls are just now playing their senior high school season, it will be interesting to see how those rankings and ratings change.

Bottom line

I originally went searching for evidence of underachievement in coaching or signs of mental obstacles or breakdowns. What I found instead is nothing as complex. This is a team with many young pieces that need time to mesh with the experienced players. After a relatively easy non-conference slate, they have run into a buzz saw and face no nights off in a deep and talented conference.

This group showed tantalizing evidence of their abilities against the non-conference slate. Their early B1G schedule is brutal; opening with three road games against ranked teams. This team could be in a big hole by the time they get to some more manageable games. Either they will regroup and emerge a better team, or they could be a shell of their former selves by the end of January. Let’s cross our fingers and hope for the former.

January 3 - Northwestern 85 Nebraska 62

Rachel Blackburn was finally back in the lineup, albeit in a reserve role after missing three games. The Huskers shooting and rebounding was ice cold everywhere except the third quarter against the talented and ranked (#14) Wildcats. Nebraska went just 10-for-37 (.270) from the floor in the first half, including 1-for-7 from three-point range in the opening half, as Northwestern raced to a 45-23 halftime lead. The Wildcats went 18-of-44 from the floor in the opening period, including a sizzling 6-for-13 from long range.

After getting the first two points of the game from Allie Havers, Nebraska watched Northwestern go on a 17-0 run, and the Big Red were never able to recover.

The Huskers rallied in the third quarter, outscoring Northwestern 22-16 and at one point cutting the Wildcat edge to 14, but the Big Red could get no closer in the loss. Northwestern also outrebounded Nebraska, 57-46, scoring 15 points off 21 offensive rebounds, while the Huskers managed just two points off their 10 offensive boards.

Nebraska hit just 35.3 percent (24-68) of its shots from the floor, including 6-of-14 threes, knocking down 5-of-7 in the second half. The Huskers hit 8-of-11 free throws, while Northwestern hit 11-of-14 shots at the stripe.

When a team manages to shut down the Husker perimeter game (or it goes cold on its own) the offense devolves into forcing the ball into Shepard and letting her go to work. Jess certainly can score under difficult circumstances, but teams are able to pick off a lot of those forced passes. She also seems to draw fewer fouls when she posts up and powers her way to the basket.

When the offense is working and she is getting the ball on cuts or off rebounds, she can make some athletic moves and is more successful in getting to the free throw line. Unfortunately, she is still a below average free throw shooter.

The poor rebounding we have seen the past few games (partially a result of Blackburn being out due to illness) also leads to fewer transition opportunities. This team is athletic and likes to run. They seem to feed on the energy of the transition game. When forced into a half-court game repeatedly, they seem less comfortable and begin to force bad shots after few passes. Toward the end of the Northwestern game, it was hard to find a possession where they had the patience to pass more than once before chucking one at the rim.

December 31 - Iowa 74 Nebraska 68

Rachel Blackburn was again out of the lineup, presumably still battling illness. The Big Red could not buy a defensive rebound and shooting (outside of Shepard) was ice cold. Theriot started the game 1 of 10. Iowa was a much smaller team, but still held a large rebounding advantage and was excellent at taking away the perimeter game. Clark and Romeo were almost invisible.

Even though Nebraska was having a terrible time rebounding defensively, they were managing to gain possessions by forcing turnovers. Blackburn’s absence was being felt keenly on the rebounding side of things.

The second quarter was probably the worst the Huskers have played all season as they scored only 11 points (Shepard accounted for nine of them). Shepard is a great player, but she needs something from her guards.

3rd quarter. Romeo started to heat up a bit as she was everywhere, forcing defensive turnovers and finally getting some clean looks at the basket. She hit her first three early in the quarter and made more plays that energized the team (and crowd) and resulted in Husker points. Iowa was forced to call a timeout after a 9-4 Husker run to cut the Iowa lead to single digits (46-37).Nebraska was still not running good offense but a foul where Romeo tried to attack the rim and was hit by an Iowa player (that player’s 3rd) started to show a glimmer of the way the Huskers want to play.

And then, things went right back to where there ended the second half. Nebraska missed shots, did not box out or rebound, and let Iowa push them around on both ends of the floor. Nebraska was playing passively and not getting foul calls as a result.

When Nebraska did get the defensive rebound, they generally led to transition points or an athletic play at the basket, but they needed more of it. A LOT more of it. There was a glimmer of hope when a Shepard shot cut the lead 52-45 with 1:39 in the 3rd quarter. It was quickly answered by an Iowa three, Husker miss, and another Hawkeye field goal to go back up by 13 (57-45). The shots continued to clank for Nebraska until Theriot hit a shot at the end of the quarter to bring it back to 10.

4th quarter. Nebraska needs to attack and continue to pile up fouls on Iowa. It remains to be seen if they can find the offense to do it. However, Iowa struck first, which was quickly answered by a Theriot floater followed by a Clark rebound and Shepard field goal. 59-51. Kalenta forced a turnover and Romeo was fouled in transition. She buried both free throws to bring the score 59-53.The fans were on their feet cheering for their team. The energy helped create an unforced Iowa turnover. Nebraska returned the favor (ouch!) but then Iowa was called for an offensive foul (on the best Hawkeye player, Disterhoff).

Nebraska had some opportunities, but missed shots and fouls gave most of those away. The defensive rebounding was starting to come alive and the Hawkeyes racked up another offensive foul (against Theriot). On the resulting possession, Rome-ooooooooooo pulled the Huskers within 3!!!!

Iowa pulled it back out to a 6 point lead and Nebraska’s next possession netted two missed shots; Hawkeyes nailed another field goal which was promptly answered by Havers 64-58. The rebounding advantage for Iowa had grown to +19 despite Nebraska’s furious comeback.

Missed layups continued to plague the Huskers - which has been an all-too-common theme. For a transition team, built to run, missed layups seem inexcusable. The other bugaboo for the Husker women this year? Free throws. Missed layups and missed free throws kept resulting in empty possessions with time running out.

The Huskers fouled repeatedly to try and extend the game, but Iowa did not miss many free throws, and when they did, the Huskers did not rebound. In desperation mode, Theriot hit a quick three to make it 68-63 with 39.5 seconds. Yori took a timeout and Nebraska still had one in her pocket. It was looking desperate until the Huskers scored 5 points (Shepard free throws and Romeo trey) in a matter of a few seconds to cut it to 71-68 with 15 seconds left. Alas, it was too little, too late as the Huskers dropped their conference opener.