After yet another rude welcoming to Big Ten Conference play this season, Nebraska head coach Tim Miles is still left with more questions than answers facing his team and how to get things turned around the rest of the year.
A 10-point loss at No. 20 Iowa and then Saturday's 31-point debacle at No. 3 Ohio State left the Huskers at 8-6 overall and 0-2 to kick off the league schedule, and things won't get any easier moving forward with Michigan (10-4, 2-0) and Purdue (10-5, 0-2) up next on the docket this week. During his interview on the weekly Big Ten coaches' teleconference on Monday, Miles addressed a number of issues facing his team at the moment.
Maybe the most concerning of which had to do with Nebraska's fouling issues the past three games. In their current three-game losing streak at Cincinnati, Iowa and Ohio State, the Huskers have committed an average of 25 fouls per game, often times leaving their top players on the bench after getting into early foul trouble. Miles said the issue was NU struggling to play good defense without initiating enough contact draw fouls with the recent rule changes in college basketball this season.
In the loss to the Buckeyes, Nebraska was called for 12 fouls in the first half alone en route to 23 total for the game. Sophomore forward Shavon Shields - who scored just four points in 26 minutes - was made essentially a non-factor after picking up four quick whistles and eventually fouling out for the third time this season. In all, five Huskers ended the game with three fouls or more.
"We're just a train wreck when it comes to defensive discipline and fouling," Miles said. "Shavon's right in the middle of all that. He didn't get many minutes against Ohio State because he had fouled too much. We need all of those guys - Deverell Biggs is another culprit. Nathan Hawkins is a guy who came in and fouled quite a bit. We've just got to be able to play hard without fouling."
While there weren't many bright spots for the Huskers in Saturday's loss, junior forward Leslee Smith had arguably his best overall performance yet in his first career start. After sophomore Walter Pitchford was ruled out of the starting five because of an illness, Smith got the starting nod in his place and put up his third double-double of the season with 11 points and 10 rebounds in 25 minutes of action.
Smith's play was even more impressive considering his missed almost the entire second half of the Iowa game with a foot injury that had limited him in practice during the week, but Miles said Smith felt fine after the OSU game didn't expect the foot to be a concern moving forward. While Smith's lingering knee problems will likely be an issue for the rest of his career, Miles said he and his staff were still deciding whether or not the 6-foot-8, 255-pounder would stay in the starting lineup for good.
"I just haven't decided what we'll do with that lineup yet," Miles said. "I'll have to talk to my staff when we meet here this afternoon about if we're going to do anything different with the lineup or not."
Despite Smith's solid play of late, Nebraska's inside game on both ends of the floor will continue to be concern as it moves further into the grind of Big Ten play. Fortunately, the Huskers got a bit of a lucky break in terms of Thursday night's conference home opener against Michigan, as All-Big Ten center Mitch McGary has already been ruled out while dealing with a back injury.
However, Miles said that even without one of the best big men in college basketball, the Wolverines were still one of the most balanced and dangerous teams in the country under head coach John Beilein.
"There's a lot of talk about losing Mitch McGary, and I don't mean to dismiss it, but where it hurts them is really rebounding and protecting the rim," Miles said. "They don't have anybody with that size and girth, but those other guys, (Jordan) Morgan and (Jon) Horford, are really productive players in there. Their rebounding numbers are very similar.
"You lose a sizable guy with a huge skill set, I know that. But really as a team, they still have enough weapons where they shoot the 3 incredibly well, they don't turn the ball over; their pace is pretty moderate in terms of a lot of their possessions, so now all of a sudden you've got a team that doesn't play a whole bunch of possessions and makes the 3 like crazy. You look at their efficiency on offense, it's just incredible. It's typical Coach Beilein."