Kierkergaard once said that “life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards," but it was Rafiki who best illustrated the concept:
Coming into this season, I believed that Tim Miles was fighting for his job. He just got a new boss, one which has fired a basketball coach or two in his day. His contract continues to languish such that it's now at the point where, this summer, he will not be able to provide much in the way of assurances to rising seniors that he will be in Lincoln past their freshmen seasons. That's uphill recruiting at its steepest, putting aside that Miles is trying to convince these players to join a program that has been to the NCAA Tournament exactly once in their lifetimes.
Time for a confession—Miles is one of my favorite coaches in college basketball. He's a smart guy, but he's also by all accounts a gracious coach, and I cannot recall a single instance where he threw a player under the bus or made some remark about the unfairness of it all (a frequent and cringey complaint if there ever was one, when it comes from the only guys in the room making any real money off this business). And while he wants to win as much as any other coach, he doesn't take himself too seriously. It is just basketball, after all.
So, I have to admit that I did not like coming to the conclusion that this season was likely the end of the road for Miles, fair or not. His tenure has been scarred by a number of sudden—and, seemingly, surprising—transfers and early entries. Maybe I should not be so forgiving of these events. Surely after it happens for the umpteenth time to the same guy, we should consider whether it's his fault. But I can't help it. I want to like Miles.
So, in a Big Ten season full of disappointments and underperformances, save a glorious Ohio State team, Nebraska's season has been a ray of sunshine. As Bart points out, despite a possible 14-4 finish in conference play, the Cornhuskers' schedule does not depict an uncontroversial path to the NCAA Tournament. With four 50/50 games left to play, I'm not going to speculate whether that will or will not happen. I'll just celebrate that the team got this far, and try to explain one small part of how that happened.
Last season, Nebraska's opponents were destroying them on the perimeter. There were only four Division I teams defending the arc any worse, and all were low-major. The Huskers were especially bad in Big Ten play, where opponents made 42.5 percent of their outside attempts. It's well-known in the tempo-free crowd that three-point defense is largely driven by luck. Sure, that's true in the macro, and yes, in the macro 3PA% is probably the more relevant metric. But Nebraska was bad there, too. And when opponents are attempting a lot and making a lot, there's a problem. Offenses will generally get worse at something the more it does them. An offense that only shoot 2s is not going to have a great 2P%. Ditto 3s. So, viewed from the other end, this means the defense is doing something incredibly poorly. Miles himself recognized there was a limit to how much he could chalk this up to bad bounces:
“There’s only so much bad luck you have. I mean, you’ve got to be tougher on the ball.”
True, enough, Tim. And after an offseason of head-scratching, Miles appears to have put all of his chips into a pack line style of defense that is especially stingy on the perimeter. Here's the basic alignment.
I believe that's Evan Taylor at the top of the key, guarding Nairn. Although Nairn is hardly a threat from the perimeter, that's just how dedicated Miles is to the style. No one is in a passing lane, and both of Taylor's feet are outside the 3-point line. So far, this is just canon pack line. And what happens next, basically is as well:
Aside from Isaiah Roby's soft show, Jordy Tshimanga also falls off his man, even though he has the ball. A good pack line defense is one that actually encourages the offense to shoot a two-point jumpshot (a great pack line defense is Virginia's, which these days does not let the offense shoot, dribble, pass, or cough comfortably). The presence of Roby and Tshimanga stop Langford's drive, and by the time he decides to pull up for a jumper, James Palmer has recovered and gets a hand on the shot. Well done, all around.
There are wrinkles to this, however, such as when the defense identifies the other team's shooter, and recognizes when he's just trying to wiggle free for an open three. See, e.g., how the team guards Dakota Mathias:
The only reason Mathias even gets a shot off is that Mathias is really good and has a nice stepback move, and because Palmer came at him with his hands down, a sin I'm sure he heard about in film session. But you'll notice the one-off overplay, which is done entirely because Nebraska would rather a shooter try and beat them back door than find space outside.
We saw the same thing happen with Kam Williams later in the season.
Here Glynn Watson executes a very fast closeout, which not only prevents the shot but actually gets Williams to travel. With respect to the overplay, this is actually kind of nuts. Ohio State is shooting 57 percent in conference plays on two-pointers. Williams himself is over 63 percent, after being a decided non-factor inside the arc throughout his career in Columbus. Seriously, Chris Holtmann is doing some work, in case you haven't heard.
But Miles doesn't care. Sure, the Buckeyes can score in the paint, but Williams is also shooting 52 percent on his 3s in Big Ten play. Miles has the math right, and chooses the better of two poor possibilities. The Huskers ended up losing to Ohio State, but it was a 5-point loss on the road, and one of the better defensive showings against Holtmann's team this season.
And, for good measure, here's Miles Bridges unable to free up through two screens:
I don't think Nebraska particularly cares where Gavin Schilling is going.
Miles knows this attention to the perimeter has its drawbacks. He's always emphasized rebounding in his career, and I'm sure it kills him a little to see his team at the bottom of the Big Ten in defensive rebounding percentage.
The newfound success in stopping 3s, Miles said, is part personnel and part system.
“It’s a marriage of both,” Miles said. “No doubt, though, the length and athleticism we’ve got has really helped us defend the 3.
“Systematically, we made the commitment to it knowing it might put us on edge. I was worried about fouling and worried about rebounding. I was right about rebounding, but we’ve done a pretty good job of not fouling.
The tweaked version of pack line has the Cornhuskers rated with the top 3-point defense on both an accuracy and attempt (3PA%) basis in Big Ten play. There's no way of looking at this other than Nebraska is really good at defending the perimeter. The fundamentals of pack line have also driven a 3rd-best defensive two-point percentage as well, and in total Nebraska has the Big Ten's 3rd-best defense on a point per possession basis. It's a massive turnaround from last season's 12th-place performance, and a key part in landing the Huskers near the top of the Big Ten standings.
Will that be enough on Selection Sunday, which undoubtedly will earn Miles the contract extension that's eluded him? Will Miles get that extension even if Nebraska falls short? Will athletic director Bill Moos not care about any of this and just hire Ernie Kent for the third time in his career, no matter what?
I do not know the answers to these questions about the future. I just know what's happened in the past, and how Miles has learned from it.