LINCOLN, Neb. — Nebraska coach Tim Miles can’t really figure it out, either.
Was it a hangover to an exciting and exhausting double-overtime win against Iowa just a few days ago? Was it because the game was one day before spring semester begins?
Why didn’t his team, which came into Sunday with the best conference record in the Big Ten, come out swinging at home against Northwestern? Why did it settle for jumpers and break down on the defensive end?
“I’ve dealt with 20-year-olds a long time now,” Miles said, rubbing his forehead after the 74-66 loss to Northwestern. “And if you can figure them out you should write a book about it because you’re gonna make a billion.”
And if you can figure out this Nebraska basketball team, you should make about that much, as well.
Because here how this season has gone so far:
Four wins to open the season, a loss to then-No. 14 UCLA that made the Bruins sweat a bit down the stretch, then two more losses to Virginia Tech and Clemson. Then a bounce-back win against South Dakota at home before a second three-game losing streak — blowout losses to then-No. 10 Creighton and then-No. 3 Kansas before a perplexing loss to Gardner-Webb at home. Then came a four-game winning streak, which included the Huskers’ first 3-0 start in conference play since Gerald Ford was President of the United States.
So who is this team? The team that loses to Gardner-Webb or outlasts Iowa despite two extra periods? Perhaps a mix of both? Are they a Big Ten title contender or did they just get hot after Christmas?
Because despite all the questions surrounding consistency and Nebraska’s ability to score on the offensive end, Northwestern coach Chris Collins said on Sunday he thinks the Huskers might just be one of the best teams the Wildcats have played this season.
“This was a good team we just played, a really good team,” Collins said. “And they’re gonna win a lot of games in this league.”
He called Nebraska’s 9-7 record deceiving, considering Nebraska’s schedule and the caliber of teams the Huskers have lost to. He thinks Nebraska is battle-tested and can run the table in the Big Ten, which he think is as even as it’s been in his four seasons coaching at Northwestern.
And yet, though battle-tested, Miles said there was not one shot taken on Sunday that he liked on the offensive end.
“I didn’t feel like I ever liked a shot. I just thought our offensive execution was poor all night,” Miles said. “At the end of the day I think they had defensive edge and we didn’t, quite frankly. They won more 50-50 balls. They got timely second shots.”
As a whole, Sunday was a head-scratcher for Miles.
He was disappointed in the play of sophomore guard Glynn Watson Jr., who went from a 34-point performance against Iowa on Thursday to 6 points on 2-for-11 shooting Sunday.
Miles said Watson “talked himself out of” the game against Northwestern, seeing things that weren’t there and overthinking everything.
This is the second time Watson’s followed up a tremendous game with a forgettable one. In the loss to UCLA, the sophomore guard scored 27 points and dished out 3 assists. The next game, he scored just 2 points on 1-of-11 shooting against Virginia Tech.
But Watson’s not alone with the inconsistencies.
Sophomore forward Jack McVeigh was a starter early in the season, but dropped out of the starting lineup after shooting 29 percent from behind the arc in the first 12 games.
Freshman Jeriah Horne took McVeigh’s spot as the 3-point shooter after his 18-point performance against Southern, a game in which Horne hit 4 of 6 from deep.
But on Sunday, Horne just wasn’t prepared, Miles said. So McVeigh started, and hit 2 of 3 from 3-point range.
So is McVeigh back, or does Horne take his place? Will Nebraska be able to find a consistent 3-point shooter or will they have to settle mid-range jumpers off the dribble?
The performance Sunday was a microcosm of the ebb and flow of the basketball season — it’s long and it’s grueling, the team getting hot then cooling off just as quickly.
Nebraska hadn’t started 3-0 in conference play since 1975 and beginning 4-0 would have been a feat not reached since World War II.
But what’s notable is the reaction by the coaches.
Collins thought it was a great win on the road against a good basketball team. And Miles saw the same ugly basketball that he watched when his team lost to Gardner-Webb at home.
“We weren’t up to the fight,” Miles said of his team on Sunday.
He couldn’t really explain the reasons. But he does know this: Nebraska wasn’t “nearly as good” as they it has been for a long time.
And the $1 billion question is: Why?