Chatelain: Defense the culprit in recent home swoon

When the lights have shined brightest at home, Tim Miles’ Huskers have lately wilted. Since last February, NU is 2-7 against teams ranked in the top 175, compared with a 17-3 record in the coach’s first season and a half.

On the Haymarket sidewalks, ticket scalpers from out of state paced through the cold, holding up fingers, taking advantage of surging demand.

Inside Pinnacle Bank Arena, fans stood four and five deep on the open north concourse, craning their necks for better views, like roadies at a rock concert.

Tim Miles noticed the energy immediately. “Awesome.”

Then the game started. Michigan jumped ahead 18-6 and never trailed again, adding to a troubling pattern. The combination to the Vault has been cracked. The formula has been broken. Husker hoops has entered the Bizarro World.

For the first time since 1998 — the Tyronn Lue era! — Nebraska has won three consecutive conference road games. How good is that? NU won four Big Ten road games combined in Miles’ first three seasons.

Back in October, if you had told Miles (or any coach coming off a losing season) that he was going to win three straight January road games, he might have given you a kiss. Road wins are gold in a Power Five conference.

Unless you can’t win at home. And for some strange reason, Nebraska basketball can’t win at home anymore. Not games against respectable competition, anyway.

There are 351 teams in Division I basketball. Against the top half (175 and up in the Ken Pomeroy ratings), Nebraska is 2-7 at home since last February. That doesn’t even count the Samford loss. Nebraska’s only wins? Rhode Island, when the Huskers rallied from eight down with eight minutes left, and Northwestern last year.

Contrast that to the first 1½ seasons at PBA, when Nebraska was 17-3 against the top 175, including that signature win over Wisconsin.

What’s going on? The easy (and blunt) answer is, well, the Huskers aren’t very good. But that doesn’t explain why they’ve usually played better away from Lincoln. (Though the Creighton loss on Dec. 9 is a rather notable exception, isn’t it?)

Feeling a tinge of 2014 nostalgia, I asked Miles after Saturday’s loss what happened to his home-court advantage. Remember the days when NU was basically unbeatable here?

Miles didn’t know. Maybe the young guys focus better on the road, he said. Statistics tell us they shoot better. For the first time in at least a decade, the Huskers have a higher field-goal percentage on the road.

But the real problem, Miles said, is defense.

Over the past decade, the major weakness with Husker hoops was mediocre (and sometimes dreadful) offense. This team doesn’t have that problem. It’s 73rd nationally in points per possession, its highest mark since 2004.

But the defense has failed. The past two seasons, Nebraska was 25th nationally in points per possession allowed. This year, it’s 125th.

Miles’ goal is to hold opponents to one point per possession. Northwestern scored 1.37 on Dec. 30, according to Michigan scored 1.31. Those are the highest single-game marks against Nebraska since Miles’ first season.

Nebraska doesn’t have the size or physicality to be great defensively. When a team such as Michigan comes into Lincoln — even if the arena is rocking — there’s no fear. Just run your offense, get the ball inside and you’ll get your points.

“(Michigan) got 3s. They got it inside off their scheme. They got offensive rebounds, and they got to the foul line,” Miles said. “There’s nothing else to do!”

Two years ago, the Huskers held eight straight Big Ten opponents under 40 percent shooting, perhaps the most impressive statistic in a thrilling season. Now they can’t even keep rivals under 50 percent in Lincoln. That’s a helpless feeling for a coach. And a frustrating one for fans who packed the house.

Saturday afternoon, 15,000-plus shuffled out into the cold after another disappointing loss, wondering what happened to the team that won at Michigan State, hoping one of these days their voices will make a difference again.

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Reporter - Sports

Dirk writes stories and columns about Husker football in addition to covering general assignments and enterprise for The World-Herald. Follow him on Twitter @dirkchatelain. Phone: 402-444-1062.

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