IOWA CITY — A year ago, Fran McCaffery got the full Nebraska experience.
In Lincoln on Jan. 27, Nebraska won 98-84 — the 98 points were a season high for the Huskers in Big Ten play.
Tim Miles’ squad did pretty much whatever it wanted that night. James Palmer scored 28 and was 11 of 14 from the foul line. Isaac Copeland scored 23 and was 4 of 5 from 3-point range. Isaiah Roby scored 17.
Nebraska got to the line 36 times, shot 58 percent from the floor and made 11 3-pointers.
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McCaffery wanted to make sure that didn’t happen again.
So early in the first half Sunday, he dropped his defense into a 3-2 zone. Wherever Palmer was, there were two defenders with an eye on him and within reach when he crossed half court. And on the offensive end, McCaffery deployed his bigs to attack Roby and Copeland inside to rack up fouls. They ran in transition to keep Nebraska tired and off balance.
For Iowa, most everything in its game plan worked Sunday.
Palmer didn’t score for the first 18 minutes. Nebraska forced quick shots that turned into 29 fast-break points for Iowa in a 93-84 win.
“Last year we played them up there they were open, we were in man, and we were helping them on the roll and were a little bit late,” McCaffery said. “In the zone, you can kind of keep them in front of you, see where they are, and be in that space. So if they’re gonna make a shot, they’re gonna make a tough shot.”
And now Nebraska, 11-4 and 1-3 in the Big Ten, faces a real problem.
As Copeland said before conference play began, Nebraska’s no longer a secret. With four of its starters returning from last year, with the same coach and a smaller bench, Nebraska has been scouted hard by every Big Ten team. And four losses in, Nebraska’s weaknesses have been on display.
Zone up Nebraska, take away Palmer, run and score in transition, and you can take down the Huskers. That’s what Iowa did, and on Sunday, Nebraska shot a season-worst 17 percent from 3-point range, and Iowa took advantage of lazy transition defense for fast-break points.
With Nebraska’s inconsistent shooting, the minutes for starters piling up and its bench a nonfactor, NU could be in trouble if it can’t find a solution.
“This team, really good coach, really good players,” McCaffery said of Nebraska. “We knew we were gonna change defenses. We knew we were going to run the ball. We knew we were going to have to guard them off the dribble. We knew we had to fight them off the glass, knew we had to drive it and push it and try to get it into the bonus both halves.”
What’s compounded the problem for Nebraska is its defense. At one point, the Huskers were the nation’s leader in effective field goal percentage defense.
Iowa shot 45 percent from 3-point range. Maryland shot 47 percent from 3 . In Nebraska’s three conference losses on the road, it’s given up 85, 74 and 93 points.
Part of that could have something to do with the difficulty of winning on the road in the Big Ten. This year, 65 percent of league games have been won by the home team.
Another could be Nebraska’s inability to get help from the bench. The Huskers are 338th out of 353 Division I teams in bench minutes.
Palmer played 38 minutes against Maryland and 39 against Iowa. Fatigue, Miles said before heading to Iowa, isn’t an issue yet. But down the stretch, Nebraska’s starters have made errors that led to losses on the road that could have been impacted by the influx of more minutes.
Not every team can play zone like Iowa did Sunday to slow Nebraska. But there’s another element the Huskers have struggled with in the past month: big, productive forwards.
Texas Tech outrebounded Nebraska 38-29, and the Red Raiders’ length forced Nebraska to shoot 5 of 23 from 3-point range. Six-foot-8 Amir Coffey scored 32 in Minnesota’s second-half comeback win. Bruno Fernando scored 18 points and had 17 rebounds in Maryland’s comeback win — not to mention 6-10 freshman Jalen Smith’s runner to win the game.
Nebraska entered the year relying heavily on its 3-point shooting, but it’s been inconsistent behind the arc.
Against Creighton, the Huskers made 14 3s. Against Iowa, four. And Nebraska’s most glaring issue, being consistently outrebounded, is a complicated problem to fix, Miles said. Against Maryland, Nebraska didn’t guard pick and rolls well and was out of position. At times, Nebraska’s effort wasn’t there against Iowa.
“You go to work, but rebounding, you can do sterile drills and it doesn’t help you as much as a better emphasis,” Miles said. “We’ll get better.”
There are 16 games left in the Big Ten season, including nine at home and 11 against teams either ranked or getting votes in the AP poll. How do you counteract a formula that’s worked to beat the Huskers? That’ll be Miles and the staff’s job over the next few days before Penn State on Thursday.
For starters, Miles wants his guys to relax. They overthink, he said, and that leads to mistakes.
“We just gotta play,” Miles said. “Free your mind and play. And I don’t think we do that enough.”