LINCOLN — When Tim Miles turned on the tape of Nebraska’s 75-60 win over Illinois from Dec. 2, one thing really stood out.
That team in white had a hop in its step. The Huskers looked confident.
They haven’t looked that way in a long time.
“We’re certainly searching for confidence,” Miles said Friday. “There’s no doubt about it. And we can all see it in their body language. And in this league, you can get slapped around really well.”
Six of the past eight times Nebraska’s taken the floor, it’s been slapped around, including Tuesday’s 62-51 loss at home to Wisconsin. NU will try to avoid a fifth straight loss Saturday at Illinois.
Miles said Friday that his team isn’t searching for a new identity after losing Isaac Copeland to a season-ending injury. But they’re searching for a morale boost that can only be earned with success. Something Nebraska hasn’t had since Jan. 14 at Indiana.
“We don’t have that bravado yet. And you earn that,” Miles said. “I think we had it. Now I think it’s mysteriously gone. We gotta earn it back.”
The last time Nebraska saw Illinois, the Illini were 2-6 but just scared No. 2 Gonzaga in Maui. The Illini remain a dangerous underdog, and that’s become more apparent as the season’s gone on.
Brad Underwood’s team beat Minnesota at home by 27 Jan. 16. The Illini dropped games to Iowa and Wisconsin, but rebounded with a 78-67 win over No. 21 Maryland on Jan. 26. They lost at Minnesota on Wednesday and are 2-8 in the conference and 6-15 overall.
Guard Trent Frazier remains Illinois’ main threat. He scored 30 in the loss to Minnesota. Nebraska held him to nine in December.
But the Illini have recently added Tevian Jones, who sat most of the year with a suspension but has become a volume scorer. He scored 28 against Maryland.
And Underwood’s team hasn’t changed defensively in the month and a half between games. The Illini still pressure the ball and cause turnovers. They are the 37th-most efficient defense in the country, holding teams to a 44.3 percent effective field goal percentage, 10th in the country.
“If you look at Maryland, they played, I thought, right into their hands a little bit,” Miles said. “Got worked up a little bit, turned it over, then took some quick shots. And that can be our crux, too. So we have to be careful.”
Nebraska enters Saturday amid one of its worst offensive slumps of the season. The Huskers have had back-to-back season-low point totals in the first half against Ohio State and Wisconsin. Without Copeland, Nebraska is averaging about 28 points per half.
The Huskers also dropped to about 0.940 points per possession in the past three halves. That’s 295th in the country. At its best, NU was in the top 50.
But Nebraska had two days to prepare between Copeland’s injury and the Wisconsin game. With a few more days of practice, the Huskers now has some familiarity with freshman Amir Harris and Nana Akenten at the 4-spot. They feel better about them there.
And they have to keep senior Tanner Borchardt, now starting at center, on the floor, Miles said.
“I was watching tape with James (Palmer) and the first thing out of his mouth is, ‘We gotta keep (Tanner) in the game,’ ” Miles said. “It changes everything.”
Beyond shooting better than its 28-percent performance against Wisconsin, Nebraska also needs some help from its bench. Nonstarters have played 115 minutes the past five games and have 11 points with 23 rebounds. And 11 of those rebounds came from Thorir Thorbjarnarson against the Badgers. Akenten has played the most of those minutes (61) but has six points.
“Nana’s gotta get out of his own way,” Miles said. “He’s one of those guys that he’s in tears after the game because he wants to help the team, and he’s not very productive right now. ‘Hey, let it go, keep playing, you can do it, stay with it.’ ”
With each loss, the pressure on Nebraska builds. The Huskers are slipping down NCAA tournament seed projections. Most fans have counted them out of the dance already.
“There’s noise, and the kids hear the noise, and everyone hears the noise. We can’t eat our own and be a successful society, so we have to stay with it,” Miles said. “Everybody faces adversity in life. So how do we stay strong, remain positive and find a way to be successful when you’re low confidence? And the only way? Success is earned.”
Nebraska at Illinois
When: 12:15 p.m.
Radio: KNCY 1600 AM, 105.5 FM