LINCOLN — From tip-off to the sound of silent, angry fans thumping out into the cold with six minutes left, Nebraska’s 70-60 loss to Ohio State on Saturday was a mess.
Isaiah Roby spent eight seconds of a critical defensive possession in the second half at midcourt putting on a lost shoe. Isaac Copeland injured his knee after dunking a ball while play was dead and an NU official confirmed that he will miss the rest of the season. Glynn Watson took a hit to the groin that stopped play, fans argued in the aisles whether to stay or leave with the Huskers down 10, twice Luther Muhammad hit long 3-pointers at the shot-clock buzzer.
Fans booed. Tim Miles’ stomach turned. And Nebraska lost its fifth game in seven tries.
“We’re just blowing opportunities,” Roby said.
With the loss, Miles and his team find themselves 13-7 after starting the year 11-2 and projected as high as a four seed in the NCAA tournament. But since the Michigan State loss, Miles said, his team has lost itself. Its zip on offense and energy on defense.
“Right now it feels to me, it looks to me, like we can’t just get out of our own way,” Miles said. “I thought we looked like a frustrated team. And a team that is mentally just not focused on, ‘Hey, let’s play with great effort, let’s play with great energy.’”
Just days after Miles called his team “soft” on his radio show, Nebraska played even softer at home. The Buckeyes bullied NU on the boards, outrebounding the Huskers 45-31. OSU turned 14 offensive rebounds into 14 second-chance points.
James Palmer led Nebraska with 19 points and four assists, but NU was often lost on offense. The Huskers scored a season-low 24 points in the first half. After making its first three shots, Nebraska proceeded to shoot 7 for 26 (26 percent) in the remaining 17 minutes. Muhammad scored 24 points for Ohio State, with six rebounds in 35 minutes.
In lieu of starters’ heavy minutes in the past five games, Miles turned to his bench for help. He got none.
In 51 minutes, the bench scored three points and missed 8 of 9 shots. And with Copeland sidelined for the entire second half with a left knee injury, Nebraska leaned heavily on Watson and Palmer, who went a combined 12 of 27 from the floor.
Nebraska led by seven midway through the first, but over the next 19:50 was outscored 39-22.
Fans were restless all night. Miles didn’t blame them.
They screamed at the coach from the upper deck, and after a string of OSU offensive rebounds, sarcastically cheered when Nana Akenten got a defensive rebound. They poured out of the arena from the 6:23 mark to the buzzer.
“As a coach, there’s nothing more sickening than emptying out your home arena,” Miles said. “I hear the groans. I’m groaning. It just makes you sick.”
Ohio State, meanwhile, snapped a five-game losing streak, and coach Chris Holtmann said he was happy to see his guys smile again. But it doesn’t get any easier from here. Not in this Big Ten. Now Ohio State has traded places with Nebraska, searching for some sort of direction after a difficult January.
In the longest postgame press conference of the year, Miles mulled over the game and decisions he made. Maybe he should’ve kept Palmer on the floor when OSU started to pull away at the end of the first. Maybe he should’ve taken a timeout after Ohio State’s first of four 3-pointers in the second half.
What could he have done differently?
“That’s probably what I’ll think about all night,” Miles said.
But the larger issue ahead for Miles and his team is the elephant in arena. The expectations, and how far Nebraska looks like it could fall. And how difficult the road looks without Copeland now that his college career is over.
Up next is Wisconsin, who beat No. 2 Michigan a week ago. Then there’s Illinois, who Nebraska beat in December.
But December is an entire season ago, before Nebraska lost to Rutgers and lost its confidence.
After a week of flipping the script, of working on being tougher and focusing inward instead of on the opponent, Nebraska goes back to the drawing board. Miles needs to sit down with his team and figure out what’s going on, he said. Because it doesn’t get any easier from here.
“Right now, I think we’re in a bad place mentally,” Miles said. “You can’t be afraid of success or failure.”
In need of reset, Nebraska basketball holds players-only meeting and antagonizing practices
LINCOLN — In October, coach Tim Miles was worried about the lack of a vocal leader inside the Huskers’ locker room.
Despite returning four starters, including three seniors, none were overtly aggressive. None an alpha dog.
That changed this week.
Isaac Copeland, the senior and transfer from Georgetown, decided it would be him. After the 76-69 loss at Rutgers on Monday, Copeland called a players-only meeting when the team got back to Lincoln.
They talked about their lack of toughness. How to turn things around. And when Miles addressed the team later that day and listed the things they needed to change — primarily getting tougher — Copeland and the team agreed.
“We just had a different vibe about it, so we just needed to talk about it and when (Miles) came to us, we were like, ‘Yeah we agree with that,’ ” Copeland said Friday.
During the past few days, practices have been hard. Long. Miles tested his team’s toughness for hours.
“Coaching in the 21st century is new and (you need to find) innovative ways to antagonize your players,” Miles said. “Let’s say you do a drill where they have one dribble every time you touch it, or they have to defend a perfect possession, or you put the clock at a minute and you have to defend and get the stops the whole minute and if they score (start it over).”
Instead of focusing on Ohio State, which comes to town Saturday, Nebraska looked inward, searching for the grit that led to wins over Seton Hall, Clemson and Indiana.
The new approach, and how far Nebraska has come in the past week, will be put to the test by the Buckeyes. Ohio State, once a top-20 team, is riding a five-game losing streak. Miles expects a physical, tough matchup between two teams desperate for a win.
“I would say that both teams would be exactly what you imagine,” Miles said. “Two Big Ten teams fighting for victory. Just a well-played, hard-played game. A real physical game.
“You just gotta battle your butt off to get on top.”
Ohio State began the season 12-1 but has lost consecutively to Michigan State, Rutgers, Iowa, Maryland and Purdue. The Buckeyes have scored more than 70 points once in that span.
But Nebraska is looking beyond that five-game losing streak. The Buckeyes are coached by Chris Holtmann, who led Butler to the Sweet 16 in 2017 and was the Big Ten coach of the year last season. They still have Kaleb Wesson, an All-Big Ten caliber forward averaging 15.3 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Nebraska enters the game favored, but recent history says it could be another close one. In Columbus a year ago, Keita Bates- Diop scored 20 and Nebraska went 8 for 29 from 3-point range in a 67-59 loss. In 2016, both final scores were within a point. The 2015 game went to overtime, a 65-62 win for Ohio State.
Miles said he expects to play 6-foot-11 freshman Brady Heiman more Saturday. Heiman had nine points and five rebounds in his Big Ten opener at Minnesota, but hasn’t played in recent weeks as he adjusts to the physical play in the Big Ten. He could help with Nebraska’s rebounding issues inside, and slow down Ohio State’s frontcourt.
But more than anything, Saturday will be about how Nebraska responds to a week of criticism after the Rutgers loss.
“Early on in the year, we were playing at a really high level,” Copeland said. “And the last couple games we kinda dipped away from that.”
Miles took some blame for that.
“I don’t think I’ve done a good job of getting them ready and I think we’ve done a better job this week,” Miles said. “I hope it translates into better results.”