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January 15, 2013

Hoops notebook: Free throws a big concern for NU

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For a team that has struggled to get the ball through the hoop as badly as Nebraska has this season, one obvious way the Huskers should be able to put points on the board is at the free throw line.

Problem is, that's one of the areas in which NU has struggled the most.

In four Big Ten Conference games so far, Nebraska ranks dead last in the league with just 15 made free throws on 28 attempts for a percentage of 53.6 that ranks second-to-last only ahead of Wisconsin (46.2).

Overall, the Huskers are averaging just 14.3 free-throw attempts per game to rank 338 out of 345 Division I teams. Only Eastern Tennessee State (14.2), Chicago State (14.0), Denver (13.1), Troy (12.8), Mount Saint Mary's (12.8), Grambling (12.0) and Presbyterian (11.7) have been worse.

Head coach Tim Miles is well aware of his teams struggles from the charity stripe, and it's been one of his biggest frustrations during his first season in Lincoln.

"We're trying," Miles said of how NU can get to the line more frequently. "We're just trying to be able to get feet in the paint - drive it, throw it inside a little more. I don't like it. I keep looking at last year's numbers, and I don't think they were very good in league play either. Some of that's in our DNA. Recruiting is going to solve that issue."

What makes Nebraska's inability to draw fouls even more confusing is the fact that a big portion of Miles' teams' offensive success everywhere he's coached has been getting to the free-throw line.

In Miles' final season at Colorado State last year, the Rams ranked first in the Mountain West Conference and sixth nationally in free-throw percentage at 76.9 percent (526-685) and averaged 16.8 made free throws on 21.8 attempts per game.

"We've always done a good job getting to the foul line," Miles said. "We led the Mountain West my last three years at CSU in getting fouled. It's always been a big portion of how we score points by design. In the Big Ten, nobody fouls as much because they're really good players that are well coached, but still, you've got to get to the foul line. We get there, and then it's like the element of surprise. We miss because we're stunned we're there."

Miles said it wasn't a matter of how games were officiated between the Big Ten and Mountain West, but almost entirely a result of Nebraska not being aggressive enough to attack the rim put defenses in bad situations in order to draw fouls.

"It's just you've got big athletes kind of playing good defense, physical defense, and where's the advantage?" Miles said. "If you're going to get fouled, you have to create an advantageous situation where the defense has to break a rule - cheat - to get back, and we're not able to do enough of that."


Vucetic not physically ready to make an impact

There have been a lot of questions lately about why 7-foot-1 freshman center Sergej Vucetic has played a total of just four minutes in four games this season, especially considering Nebraska's lack of depth inside.

Miles said the reason Vucetic has hardly seen the court this season didn't have nearly as much to do with his ability as it did his overall lack physical bulk and strength. With the size and talent in the Big Ten, Miles said he just didn't think Vucetic's 236-pound frame could hold up at this point.

"The things that hold him back from being a successful player are strength and quickness," Miles said. "So when you're going up against somebody that's clearly going to out-match him, I don't think it's a position that the team is going to be successful or himself. So if we can find the right match-up where I think he can be functional, we'll get him in the game."

Miles said there was never any thought to redshirting Vucetic going into the season, and the original plan was to try and get him as much playing experience as possible during the non-conference slate. However, because the Huskers had trouble getting out to many big leads in those games, the opportunities were extremely limited to get Vucetic on the floor.

"I wanted to get him in," Miles said. "Some of those (non-conference) games where I'd hoped maybe we could extend leads when we had 15 or 16-point leads with seven and eight minutes left, they came down to the wire, and we just never had a chance to get him some reps in low-stress situations."

Fixing mistakes is priority No. 1

When the Huskers got back to Lincoln after their close 66-56 loss at No. 22 Michigan State, Miles showed his players perfect examples of what has been holding them back all season the next day during film study.

After going through almost the entire tape of the game, Miles stopped it with 1:56 left to go in the second half and the Huskers trailing by one. He then started the tape over to go through and count all of the missed opportunities NU had leading up to that point that could have drastically changed the game's outcome.

By the time it got back to that 1:56 mark, Miles and his players had counted at least 13 points that were left off the board strictly because of their own obvious mistakes.

"We're going to make mistakes," Miles said. "They're going to score on us. We're going to have errors. But I wanted to see where did we just trip over ourselves, and I counted 13 points where we just screwed up - handed them two points; maybe we had a breakaway and missed a little inside shot or we had a turnover and just threw it to them and they go down and dunk it; or we get a defensive rebound and they just poke it out and make a 3.

"So I said, OK, let's just say we only handed them half that much. Let's say we handed them like seven points or whatever - we'd still have a five-point lead at this point going down to play defense… It's hard to play the game out exactly that way, but the idea is the way you win those games is by playing from the front, playing with the lead. So when you do make a mistake like you do late in the game, you've got pad. That's why airplanes fly faster than they need to to take off. Just teaching these guys those things and to think that way is really important."

Senior guard Dylan Talley said it was tough going back and seeing all the missed chances the Huskers had in that game, but it was good motivation to clean up those errors going forward.

"We just got to keep on practicing at it and staying focused with the offense and making sure we're not missing open cutters," Talley said. "But as far as I see it, we're getting better. There's always room for improvement, so we've got to continue to get better. We've just got to keep working at it."

Around the rim

***Miles said he still wasn't sure what senior forward Brandon Ubel's status would be for Wednesday night's home game against Purdue, as he continues to rehab from a fractured elbow he suffered against Michigan.

"I'll wait to see," Miles said. "If the trainer comes to me and says Brandon's ready - I haven't asked. I'm kind of proceeding like he's not going to be available."

***Through four Big Ten games, junior guard Ray Gallegos has shot just 9-of-44 (20.4 percent) from 3-point range, but that doesn't mean Miles has lost any confidence in his leading scorer.

"He just doesn't have much perimeter help out there," Miles said. "He doesn't have a guard creating for him where he's going to get better looks where they have to help inside and protect the rim. We don't get fouled on a regular basis. They're not going to leave him to double-team the post, they're going to chase him off and switch to all his screens. So without that guard maybe creating for him, I think we put him in a tough situation.

"I just keep telling him, 'Ray, unconditionally, you're shooting. I believe in you. You're going to do this. Just always think of the future.' I'm sure those numbers would be a shock to him. He'd probably feel terrible about it. Maybe he knows about it, but I don't care, we're going to him. We've put him in a tough spot, and we're going to keep putting him in a tough spot."

***Especially in Sunday's loss at Michigan State, Talley has taken over more and more of the load at point guard for the Huskers the past couple weeks as Nebraska continues to use its bigger lineup in conference play. Running the point is nothing new for Talley, who said he played the position at times at both Binghamton University and Blinn (Texas) College before coming to NU.

"Coach Miles has been helping me out a lot and just telling me I need to be more of a facilitator at times," Talley said. "I know how to go in for the score, I just need to help get everybody involved. I just keep trying to do that."

***Despite Nebraska's 0-4 start in the Big Ten, both Miles said he still hoped Husker fans would continue to show great support the rest of the season.

"Hopefully they're encouraged and we can get the students there and the fans there and get things riled up and rally behind these guys," Miles said. "Fans want to win. I think fans have been pretty fair. I think Nebraska traditionally, it appears to me, has been a very fair place to coaches… basketball coaches."



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