Before Nebraska’s first ever Big Ten/ACC Challenge matchup against Wake Forest, head coach Doc Sadler urged his team to play with more swagger. Afterwards, it was clear Sadler’s team didn’t get the message.
As C.J. Harris scored the game-winning layup with 3.3 seconds remaining, 8,104 Husker fans filed out of the Devaney Center with an all too familiar feeling.
“It was devastating,” said senior guard Caleb Walker. “Any loss is devastating. We came in and I thought we were going to come out a little stronger than we did, but you know, obviously, it didn’t go that way.”
It certainly didn’t go that way on Wednesday, nor did it go that way in the Huskers’ other home loss to Oregon.
Six games into the season and five years into the Sadler era, the Huskers have offered no reason to believe that this season will be any different from seasons past. As Nebraska prepares for No. 22 ranked Creighton on Sunday, many Husker fans are wondering if their team encompasses the ability bounce back.
So where did it all go wrong?
A decisive Rhode Island victory, a key double-overtime win at USC, and some spectacular scoring by senior Bo Spencer, seemed to indicate the team was ready to make a legitimate bid at the NCAA Tournament. But the early season hot streak seemed to fizzle out when Coach Dana Altman and Oregon came to town last week. The Huskers failed to recover from a seven minute scoring drought to open the second half, losing 83-76 to the Ducks.
In Wednesday’s Wake Forest game, Nebraska went away from its game plan, heaving up 23 three-pointers instead of attacking the inside. The team shot a dreadful 26.1 percent from behind the arc and 38.6 percent from the field in the Husker’s second home loss of the year.
“It’s frustrating for me. It shouldn’t be happening,” said Sadler. “When you’re trying to get things done like we’re trying to get done here, you can’t lose those kind of games at home and we’ve lost two of them.”
Coach is right, it shouldn’t be happening. NCAA Tournament teams don’t lose to mediocre teams - especially at home. Good teams find ways to win close games.
Add the fact that Nebraska’s roster is filled with eleven upper-classmen and you can’t help but wonder where the leadership has gone, or if it was ever there? Is the 2011-2012 season already over?
“There’s still a lot of season left so I’m not going to say that quite yet,” said Walker. “We have a lot of games left, a lot of opportunities to make it right.”
Fortunately, Nebraska won’t have to wait long for its first opportunity to bounce back.
On Sunday, the team will travel 45 minutes down I-80 to take on the Bluejays at Omaha’s Qwest Center Arena.
Head coach Greg McDermott has his squad playing as well as any other Creighton team in recent memory. Offensively, the Bluejays rank fourth in the NCAA in total scoring (88.8 PPG), second in assists (22.3 APG), and fifth in field goal percentage (52.9%).
If the Huskers hope to have any chance of slowing down Creighton’s potent offense, a good place to start would be shutting down stud Doug McDermott. The sophomore from Ames, Iowa is averaging 23.7 PPG, 8.5 RPG, and is shooting an astounding 56.5 percent from three-point range.
“He is really good. Really good,” said Sadler. When asked about how to stop the Junior Olympic team member and the fourth leading scorer in the nation, the Husker coach replied, “I don’t know. We’re still trying to figure that out. Nobody has done it yet.
“We’ve got to play really good defense and we’ve got to be really efficient offensively. When you play a team right now that is playing as well as Creighton is playing, you better be efficient at both ends to have a chance.”
For a Husker team that is in dire need of a big win, all signs point to Sunday’s game as the one that could provide the essential spark.
However, as much as Sadler would like to beat Creighton, he’s not convinced the season would be “over” with a loss in Omaha. He won’t be checked out until March 11, the last day of the Big Ten Tournament.
“I think that’s the bonus you have of being in this league,” he explained. “We could lose two more games, but if you go 10-8 in the league you’re going to get in the tournament.”
Whether the Huskers win or lose, it will be clear as to how good this team truly is.
The truth is that there is still a lot of season left to be played. Five non-conference teams and 18 conference opponents still await the Huskers. A lot can happen in 23 games.
When Sadler asked his to team to play with swagger on Wednesday, he instead received selfish play, resulting in a disastrous finish. Maybe the solution is something much simpler.
Walker had an idea of where to start: “I think we definitely need to focus on being a team again. Sharing the basketball, playing good defense and getting back to the good team that we were.”