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January 17, 2012Following Sunday night's 50-45 loss to Wisconsin that dropped Nebraska to 1-5 in Big Ten Conference play, head coach Doc Sadler came up with his best guess as to what has been holding his team back the most in recent weeks.
After losing yet another game where they had a legitimate chance to win in the final seconds, Sadler said the Huskers' biggest problem at this point was a lack of overall toughness.
On the surface, some could take that as NU isn't strong or physical enough to compete with the hard-nosed, aggressive teams of the Big Ten. But that wasn't what Sadler had in mind at all.
Instead, the toughness to which he was referring had everything to do with what was inside his players' heads and hearts.
"Everybody talks about toughness as something that's physical," Sadler said. "I don't think toughness is physical at all. I think toughness is mental. Everyone of these guys has got athletic and physical ability, but the good teams have mental toughness to make a big play."
In the loss to the Badgers, Nebraska simply couldn't make any of the types of effort plays down the stretch to take advantage of one of Wisconsin's worst offensive efforts of the season. If the Huskers were able to get a defensive stop, it seemed UW was always there grab an offensive rebound or dive for a loose ball to extend the possession.
When all was said and done, the Badgers hauled in 17 offensive rebounds that accounted for 17 second-chance points and out-rebounded NU 42-28 as a whole. They also got to the line for 24 free throws, making 18, while the Huskers shot just two the entire game.
"We gave up so many hustle plays, so many loose balls that we didn't get on the floor or that they just dominated and got," senior point guard Bo Spencer said. "They got a series where they had five straight offensive rebounds. I think that's what (Sadler) really means when he says a sense of toughness. I don't think he's challenging whether we're tough guys or whatever, but just being physical and just having a will to get the ball."
Another aspect of that mental toughness can be seen how Nebraska has responded during the final minutes of close games. Despite holding Wisconsin without a field goal for the final seven minutes, the Huskers were still unable to capitalize on countless opportunities to put the game away.
The same can be said in losses to Michigan State, Illinois, Wake Forest, Oregon and even Creighton earlier this season. Sadler said the only way he could think of for his team to develop the killer instinct needed to finish of those kinds of games at the end was to finally start winning a few of them.
Until the Huskers can establish a true belief that they can win in those situations, it will be difficult for them to play with the winning attitude needed to come up big in the clutch.
"That's confidence," Sadler said. "Believing that you're going to make plays and then going and making them, not waiting for someone else to make it. You go make it. Good teams have that."
What makes Nebraska's struggles with making the hustle plays it needs late in games even more puzzling is the fact that its roster features five seniors and six juniors. With that kind of veteran leadership, the Huskers know there's no excuse for being out-worked on the court.
"That's the tough part, keeping that same enthusiasm and same energy until the last five minutes," senior guard Toney McCray said. "As seniors, that's something the seniors really have to put an emphasis on and be aware of. That's just something we have to do as a team. There's nobody else that can help us with that. That's a team thing, and we've got to take control of that."
The exact solution for Nebraska to break out of its current slump may only come with finally getting enough bounces to pull out a couple of those close games and get some victories under its belt.
With the grind of the Big Ten still just getting underway, there's time left for the Huskers to turn the season around, but they'll have to do something soon to keep any more potential wins from slipping away.
In Spencer's mind, he knows just where Nebraska will have to look to find its answer.
"It has to do having a lot of heart," Spencer said. "We can set goals and try to improve on them, but I think it has to do with having heart and just going out and trying to get every play. It's all on us from here on."