LINCOLN — Scoring isn’t the problem.
The Nebraska women’s basketball team is averaging 77.8 points per game. Eight players average at least eight points per game. They’re dishing out more than 17 assists per contest. NU’s 3-point shooting (34.5 percent) is OK. Nebraska can score inside and outside, at the foul line or in transition.
“When you’re putting the ball in the basket like we are, you should be able to win games,” NU coach Amy Williams said last week while on a recruiting trip.
Yet the Huskers are 5-6 headed into Big Ten play. Their RPI is 122 as of Thursday. A tough schedule — featuring five true road losses against major conference teams, including rival Creighton — is a key reason for the record. But tight losses at Washington State and Arkansas and at home against Drake underline something else: NU’s defense, much improved last season, has taken a step back.
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Drake scored 83. Washington State scored 87 in two overtimes. Arkansas scored 84. NU’s possession-by-possession focus on defense waned in all three.
It leaves NU with an uphill climb for in its quest to return to the NCAA tournament. The new 18-game Big Ten schedule, featuring 13 games against teams currently in the RPI top 100, is daunting. And Williams said the Big Ten is stronger this season than it was last, when Nebraska finished in a tie for third.
The first of those foes, 9-3 Michigan, comes to Pinnacle Bank Arena for a rare Friday Big Ten night opener. It was the Huskers’ 61-54 win over the Wolverines in the first round of the league tournament that firmed up NU’s NCAA tournament bid.
Now it’s another big game for the Huskers, who will have to protect home court after dropping so many nonconference games on the road.
Williams said she’s comfortable with NU’s starting lineup, which doesn’t include any of the four true freshmen who have combined to average 31 points and 14.4 rebounds per game. She liked where the rotation settled during a three-game home winning streak over Kansas, San Jose State and Denver. A 84-80 loss at Arkansas didn’t change that.
But she’d like that starting five to be more efficient — particularly two leaders.
“I think we haven’t seen the best out of Maddie Simon and Hannah Whitish yet,” Williams said. Both players, Williams said, are “pressing” to some degree because they want to do well.
Simon is averaging 8.2 points and 4.3 rebounds, but struggling with turnovers (2.54 per game), too. Whitish, a preseason All-Big Ten pick, is averaging just 8.3 points per game and shooting just 34.5 percent from the field. Her turnovers, too, have been an issue.
Nebraska has struggled with fouling, as well, committing nearly 20 per game. Freshman forward Ashtyn Veerbeek is efficient when she’s on the floor — 8.8 points and 6.6 rebounds in just 17 minutes — but she’s committing a foul every five minutes, as well. She and center Kate Cain have both fouled out twice this season.
That duo will have its hands full with Michigan’s frontcourt, which features 6-5 senior Hallie Thome (12.2 points and 5.3 rebounds per game) and 6-2 freshman forward Naz Hillmon (12.6 and 6.7). All told, UM is outrebounding its opponents by 13.9 boards per game.