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Nebrasketball: What Went Wrong?

An NCAA tournament lock coming into the season, the Huskers need a miracle now just to make it on the bubble

NCAA Basketball: Nebraska at Illinois Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

The “historic season” experts and analysts would predict for Nebraska basketball this year. Funny thing is, the Huskers had a historic season last year, where they reached 23 wins overall and 13 conference wins, the most ever in school history.

They broke that record, and still returned 70 percent of their total production for this season, including starters James Palmer, Isaac Copeland, Isaiah Roby and Glynn Watson.

“The Big 4” was viewed as the arguably best starting lineup in the Big Ten coming into the season, with a solid guard in Thomas Allen rounding it out. Nebraska had all the talent in the world, and the homecourt advantage, and that showed in the first half of the season.

The bracketologists said Nebraska didn’t make the tournament last year because of their weakness of schedule, or rather their failure to pick up “Quadrant 1 wins”. Tim Miles made sure that didn’t happen this season.

In the non-conference season, the Huskers took care of business with their tough games, winning at home against Seton Hall and Creighton, and going on the road to beat Clemson. The only time they fell short in non-conference play was a Thanksgiving tournament game against Texas Tech on a neutral court. Texas Tech reached the AP Top 10 this season.

For those games outside of Texas Tech, Nebraska averaged 81 points per game, and only allowed 66 points per game. These teams have done well in their own conferences, so the quality of their opponents isn’t at question. Is the Big Ten just superior to every other conference? Maybe. But I don’t think that’s the case here.

Recently Nebraska has not shot well, at all, and in the non-conference season, that didn’t seem to be a problem at all, especially for James Palmer Jr. Palmer terrorized non-conference opponents outside of Texas Tech, averaging 20 points per game and most noticeably, going 85% at the charity stripe, 81 for 95.

Since the Maryland game in early January, Palmer has shot 61% from the foul line, 41 of 67. Why? Tiredness from the entire season. That goes for all of the “Big 4” as well. If Nebraska had a weakness coming into season, bench depth was their Superman’s kryptonite.

Before Isaac Copeland’s injury, Nebraska ranked 344th out of 351 in total bench minutes (according to KenPom). That’s insane. Tanner Borchardt was their go-to sixth man, a former walk-on. Nothing against Tanner though, I love Tanner. The guy just got a double-double on the road at Illinois. But something is wrong if your sixth man is a former walk-on and picks up fouls like it’s his job.

And it was wrong, as we can see at this point in the season. Conference play with Copeland was already a problem, but now without him, finding reliable lineups has been a head scratcher for Miles. Having a solid bench goes a long way in the second half of the season, especially in a physical conference like the Big Ten, and Nebraska can’t keep up anymore.

Losing Xavier Johnson before the season hurt the Huskers a lot more than people thought with bench depth, and hurt Glynn Watson Jr. the most.

Watson has always started off hot, and this year he did more of the same, averaging 14 points per game at a 46% clip. Much like JPJ, since the Maryland game, Watson has struggled. He’s down to 36% from the field, and only averages 9.3 points per game. Every year Watson has been here, Nebraska has had no other floor general, and that forces Watson to play some crazy minutes.

The Huskers took a big hit at Maryland, and began their tumble down the Big Ten hill, rolling down past Rutgers, Ohio State, Northwestern, and now Illinois. The Copeland injury severely increased the speed of the decline, and now Nebraska is only above Penn State, who has been descending this entire season.

I and many others thought this was finally the year Nebraska won an NCAA tournament game, but I don’t see them even making the tournament now. The effort is still there, but the awkward offensive flow and tough schedule make it almost impossible to reach the history breaking season everyone predicted.

Maybe Miles and the team will prove me wrong, but seeing such a hyped up season crumble over the course of January has taken all the confidence out of me in this team. What do you think?