LINCOLN — Nebraska runs a set on offense in which two guards start at the block and shoot out to opposite wings.
Whoever gets the pass, the forward on the elbow on that side sets a quick screen. Ideally, like a bike gaining speed down hill, the ball screen starts the offensive momentum, and the Huskers can move the ball, shake up the defense and find an open shot.
But often, there’s a shot taken quickly off that screen. And often, that shot doesn’t go in. And often, it drives coach Tim Miles crazy.
“All year this has been a concern so it does not surprise me to have a night here or a night there to not shoot the 3 well,” Miles said after Nebraska’s 73-49 win over Western Illinois. “What concerns me are those quick outside shots in a half-court set. Those are killers in your defense, your offensive rhythm and everything.”
Nebraska’s defense is among the best in the country, leading the nation in effective field goal percentage. It’s fourth in opponent points per game (51.7). And the Huskers aren’t anemic on offense. They score more than 80 points a game, good for 55th in the country.
But what Nebraska’s offense lacks is a clear identity. It’s in between encouraging more 3-pointers and preaching hesitation. Coaches want players to take open 3s, but they want the best open 3 and not to shoot too quickly in a shot clock. Nebraska takes about 16 seconds of the 30-second shot clock, the 68th quickest in the country.
That’s not what Miles wants. And that paradox of encouraging taking open shots and wanting to hit the brakes shows up in games like Saturday’s — Nebraska shot 4 for 20 from the 3-point line, yet won by more than 20.
It’s a win. But at times, the quick shots led to runs from Western Illinois to get back into the game. Nebraska wants to be a 3-point shooting team, but they’re 9 for 43 in the past two games.
So what’s Nebraska’s identity?
That’s in flux. And the Huskers will have to try to answer that quickly and on the road against Clemson on a prime-time showdown Monday night. The Tigers (5-1) are coming off an 87-82 loss to Creighton in which the Bluejays made 10 3-pointers, led by Ty-Shon Alexander, who made 7 of his 12 from deep.
Though Clemson allows long shots, that doesn’t guarantee Nebraska can quickly right its offense. Teams are now scheming Nebraska better than a year ago.
James Palmer is Nebraska’s leading scorer and one of the best in the Big Ten. Though he’s averaging 17.2 per game, points are much tougher to come by.
Teams have a season’s worth of film, and he’s no longer an unknown commodity like he was a year ago. He’s shooting 38 percent from the floor, worst among the starting five, and 17 percent from 3, worst on the team with at least 10 attempts.
Teams are doing two things to Palmer.
Playing loose off the ball and baiting him into the lane. Playing off him leads to more 3s. He’s taken 39 this year, compared to 21 in the first six games last year.
And baiting him into the lane leads to opposing teams packing help-side defense, then drawing offensive fouls. In two games in Kansas City, Palmer was called for five charges — including three against Texas Tech, a game in which he fouled out.
Through six games, Palmer is averaging more points than last year, but also carrying a heavier load of Nebraska’s offense. He’s taken 22 percent of Nebraska’s total shots, and 24 of the team’s 3s. Last year, through six games, he’d taken 19 percent of the shots, and 16 percent of the team’s 3s.
That leads to is a heavier reliance on Palmer, and it showed against Texas Tech. When he went out with his fourth foul, Nebraska trailed 38-34. Before the next TV timeout, Nebraska trailed by 10 and never recovered.
“That was bothersome to me that we couldn’t get somebody else going,” Miles said.
Isaac Copeland has picked some slack, with 14.8 points per game. He’s shooting 57 percent from the floor, and most shots don’t come in the paint.
Glynn Watson has been mostly consistent, with 15.2 points per game and four assists. He leads the team as a 52 percent 3-point shooter. And Nebraska’s getting some help from Nana Akenten, who is scoring eight points per game in 13.8 minutes. But he’s also attempting 6.2 field goals per game ).
Isaiah Roby is last in the Core Four, with 8.5 points per game. He’s shooting a handful of times per game, and in a few games, has struggled to stay on the floor with foul trouble. Miles recently challenged Roby to be more aggressive.
Nebraska drew up two plays for Roby early against Western Illinois, giving him the ball on the block 1-on-1. He scored both times.
The junior forward agreed, he needs to be more aggressive. But there’s a challenge being the 5 in this offense, particularly when the team starts taking quick shots.
“I’m supposed to set screens and keep the ball moving and not have the ball stick,” Roby said.
And when Nebraska gets in the habit of quick shots, it takes him out of the game on offense.
Which is the crux of the problem. How do you teach to shoot without abandon, but a slice of hesitation to keep everyone involved? How do you overwhelm teams with 3s, but not to the point it leads to misses and transition buckets on the other end?
“The hard ones are when after a made basket, after a free throw, and it’s a set thing and you’re coming down, you come in, you set a screen, you get someone open and then that guy just bombs one away,” Miles said. “We just need to keep teaching some of those guys what shot selection looks like.”
ACC/Big Ten Challenge: Nebraska at Clemson
When: 5 p.m. Monday
Where: Clemson, S.C.
Radio: 1600 AM, 105.5 FM