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Early Drought Plagues Huskers in Loss to UCF

Just a week ago, the Nebraska men’s basketball team (3-2) played its worst game of the season en route to a St. John’s blowout win. Following a game where nothing went right for the Big Red, the Huskers rebounded well with its best offensive performance of the year against North Dakota – the reigning Big Sky champs and NCAA tournament team. Nebraska looked to carry that momentum into Orlando for its game against Central Florida (4-0) in the AdvoCare Invitational.

At the end of the first half, Nebraska reverted to its habits against St. John’s, going over six minutes without scoring and finding itself in a stretch where the team missed 11 out of its 12 shots. To end the first half, Nebraska shot 7-of-28 from the floor (2-of-13 from beyond the arc) and trailed UCF 36-20.

Despite a second half where junior James Palmer Jr. exploded for 20 points (out of his total of 22), the Huskers couldn’t overcome their deficit and fell to UCF 68-59.

Here are my takeaways from Nebraska’s loss in its first-round game in the AdvoCare Invitational.

— Clearly, the offense has to change.

Where’s the ball movement? Why aren’t Palmer and Isaac Copeland getting more consistent touches when Glynn Waston Jr. is struggling, yet he takes 11 shots in the first half? Tim Miles’ offense right now involves a plethora of ball screens and frequent isolation, essentially making off-ball guys like Palmer and Copeland obsolete when Watson starts the offense. The ball sticks, and guys on the perimeter are left watching way too often. When the ball is moving side to side quickly, it forces the defense to defend on the move. With Nebraska, and defenders don’t have to worry about off-ball action, and help-side defense becomes a lot easier. Nebraska’s offense is predictable, and when Watson isn’t making shots, they struggle.

So on nights like tonight, when Watson is struggling, other guys have problems getting involved. For instance, tonight Watson finished with 11 points on 17 shots, while Palmer finished with 22 points on 13 shots. Palmer has proven several times this season that he can lead the team in scoring, and do it efficiently, but with Watson being the primary ball handler, the sets are often run for him and guys like Palmer and Copeland are struggling to get involved against capable teams.

Nebraska has a lot of talent this season, but when NU runs an offense that doesn’t involve much ball or off-ball (with a purpose) movement, these talented players become obsolete. They’re not being put in positions to succeed. The blame can be tossed around, but its a problem that hasn’t been fixed in years.

An offense that moves the ball quickly (with the pass) will force defenders to constantly be on the move, and a defender on the move is easier to drive at then a set defender. And getting past a defender can open opportunities to get to the paint and create shots inside and out. Instead, Nebraska has opted with the approach to set ball screens and force Watson to shoot and pass over taller, lengthier defenders, which the junior has struggled with.

— Find an identity

I’ve seen and heard a lot about how much Nebraska has worked on transition offense. Tonight, Nebraska had six fast break points.

Part of this has to do with the Huskers’ defensive tendencies, which have been inconsistent. At times, Nebraska will do a very good job of pressuring the ball and taking away passing lanes. During these times, NU creates opportunities to get easy buckets in transition. However, against more capable teams, the Huskers tend to pressure less, knowing they aren’t great individual perimeter defenders, which is another problem. With that being said, Nebraska has to either start finding ways to apply more pressure and create transition opportunities (my vote), or they can devote less time working on transition offense and spending more time finding a solution to the team’s half-court offensive struggles.

— It doesn’t get easier for Nebraska.

While I think this team has a better shot to turn it around than last year’s team, Nebraska will have to play Kansas, Minnesota, Michigan State and Creighton in early December – all teams that are playing well and will likely be ranked when they face the Huskers.

The Huskers will be back in action in the consolation game tomorrow at 6 p.m. against the loser of No. 23 West Virginia and Marist.

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