Following Nebraska men’s basketball’s 102-67 loss to Michigan on Tuesday night, head coach Fred Hoiberg was irate.
He referred to the decisive defeat as “embarrassing” postgame, and was overall frustrated with his teams’ effort against the Wolverines. Fortunately, at least from Tuesday’s perspective, the Huskers had an immediate opportunity to squash those concerns in a marquee contest against the best opponent they’ve faced this season.
Enter Saturday against No. 18 Auburn, a nationally-televised standalone tipoff played in Atlanta’s State Farm Arena. On the surface, it appeared to be a fantastic opportunity to right the ship against a Tiger program in limbo following a recent NCAA penalty.
What actually transpired was more of the same.
Nebraska was not only beaten again, but beaten badly again. Auburn flexed its might in an utterly dominant 99-68 victory — a game the Tigers dominated throughout. Hoiberg’s squad never had a shot.
Here are three takeaways from Nebraska’s second consecutive 30-point loss:
It just wasn’t that Nebraska lost…
Nebraska entered Saturday’s contest as a significant underdog, but matters were made worse when Hoiberg revealed on Thursday that a viral infection had ravaged the team in recent days.
According to Hoiberg, that made things extremely more difficult when it came to making the necessary adjustments following the Michigan game. When the dust settled, however, Nebraska was nearly at full strength.
Freshman forward Wilhelm Breidenbach, who injured his knee in the Michigan game, didn’t make the trip to Atlanta. Freshman guard Keon Edwards was also absent, the only notable illness-related absence. The Huskers had all the available pieces necessary to be competitive with Auburn.
Only they weren’t. Not even close.
If the final score doesn’t indicate it, maybe the back-to-back alley-oops by Auburn junior guard Devan Cambridge, off-the-backboard alley-oop converted by freshman forward Jabari Smith or the multiple 30-foot 3-pointers by sophomore guard Wendell Green Jr. will. And that was just in the second half.
It was a complete dismantling.
Auburn, like Michigan, got whatever it wanted offensively. The Tigers shot 51.3% from the field and 45.2% from 3-point range on 14-of-31 shooting. Auburn was graciously aided by 20 Nebraska turnovers, including seven from senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr.
Smith lived up to every bit of his billing as a potential NBA lottery pick, flashing his athleticism and skill en-route to a game-high 21 points, but he was far from the only Auburn player to have a successful offensive outing.
Five Auburn players reached double-figures while Nebraska provided little-to-no resistance. The Huskers nearly became the first Nebraska team since the 1991-92 season to allow 100 points in consecutive contests. If Tuesday’s effort was a result of the team quitting as a whole, it’s extremely difficult to comprehend why the same exact performance happened again.
Overall, it was difficult to predict a complete 180 following Tuesday’s loss that culminated with a win on Saturday. What was expected, though, was a more competitive effort for 40 minutes.
Hoiberg noted postgame that he felt his teams’ effort was improved against Auburn, but it’s difficult to see exactly how that materialized. It wasn’t just that Nebraska lost, it was the manner of the defeat which made Saturday particularly crushing for the Huskers.
One of the few Nebraska positives from Saturday include freshman guard C.J. Wilcher, who broke out of a recent run of poor form with a solid showing.
The last few weeks had been extremely difficult for the Xavier transfer. In Nebraska’s quadruple-overtime loss to North Carolina State, Wilcher scored just two points and was 0-for-7 from 3-point range. He posted another goose egg from distance against the Wolverines, going 0-for-5. Entering Saturday, Wilcher hadn’t cracked double-digit points since Nov. 23 against Tennessee State.
That all changed on Saturday, as Wilcher smashed his slump with a team-high 17 points — a personal best during his brief Husker tenure. Perhaps most encouragingly, Wilcher was 4-of-6 from 3-point range.
Hoiberg said postgame that he felt Wilcher “got his swagger back” following his performance against the Tigers. Wilcher was 6-of-9 from the field overall and 1-of-2 at the free throw line.
Wilcher’s efforts also propped up another poor 3-point shooting effort from Nebraska. Outside of Wilcher, Nebraska went 3-of-16 as a team from 3-point range. Freshman guard Bryce McGowens was 0-for-4 from deep, and sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga made just 1-of-4 attempts.
Despite the poor shooting night, Wilcher’s outing was encouraging and could hopefully provide a bridge for more successful performances as Big Ten play approaches. Nebraska would greatly appreciate it, at any rate.
What can a week off do?
Nebraska appears to be getting a week off at the right time, allowing Hoiberg and his staff some much-needed time to regroup.
The Huskers sit at 5-6 and 0-2 in Big Ten play through 11 games and appear to be lightyears removed from any sort of preseason expectation. An early-season foot injury to junior guard Trey McGowens and the recent departure of assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih certainly haven’t helped matters, but it’s increasingly apparent that Nebraska is in some sort of team-wide funk.
Even in losses this season to Creighton, North Carolina State and Indiana, the Huskers were largely competitive throughout before ultimately succumbing at some point in the game. That fight has seemingly disappeared over the last week.
Things don’t get much easier, either.
In theory Nebraska’s next two games are its most favorable, home dates with Kansas State and Kennesaw State. Then things get much tougher. Come January and the resumption of conference play, Nebraska’s first five opponents are insanely brutal: No. 21 Ohio State, No. 19 Michigan State, Rutgers (which just knocked off No. 1 Purdue at home), Illinois and No. 1 Purdue.
Something needs to change, and it needs to change fast. Nebraska can ultimately do little to help itself in the coming weeks, but a renewed effort would certainly be a welcome sight.
Adjustments, surely, are coming for Hoiberg’s squad during the upcoming week. The nature of those adjustments might ultimately decide the Huskers’ season.