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February 7, 2012On Sunday, Nebraska head coach Doc Sadler was left scrambling to adjust his game plan against Minnesota when he learned junior center Jorge Brian Diaz would be a late scratch from the lineup due to a flare up of his ongoing foot problems.
Since coming to realization that Diaz would likely be out for the remainder of the season shortly there after, Sadler has been faced with figuring out how to move on without his best post player for the final seven games.
With the 6-foot-11 Diaz on the shelf barring some drastic change in condition of his bad feet, the Huskers are left with junior forward Brandon Ubel as the only big man with more than 94 minutes of playing time this season and any starting experience.
Seeing how Nebraska's rotation had been cut down to just seven players - including Diaz - over the past few weeks of Big Ten play, Sadler said he would have to rely on an inexperienced group to fill Diaz's void.
"That's something that we're still talking about," Sadler said. "Obviously you've added (Mike Fox) into the mix and probably (Christopher Niemann), but I think probably with this many games in this many days, we're looking at probably having to play some guards too for I don't know how long... We'll just see how the game goes."
Niemann would seem like a logical pick to see more minutes in Diaz's absence, but he's obviously dealt with more injuries than any player on the roster over the course of his career. Coming off of two major knee injuries, the 6-11 junior center has played in just 16 of NU's 22 games this year, averaging just 5.8 minutes per outing.
Then there's Fox, who has surprised many fans with the amount of playing time he's received this season, especially in Big Ten Conference play. While he was able to earn his way into the rotation with great effort and knowledge of Sadler's system, the fact remains that at just 6-4, 195, Fox is undeniably overmatched against the bigger, stronger post players around the conference.
When Diaz was in the lineup, Fox and senior guard Toney McCray were able to pose some mismatches for opponents on the offensive end by forcing slower big men to come out and try to guard them on the perimeter.
Now they will likely have to spend much for time around the basket on both ends of the floor, which certainly does not play to their strengths. Sadler said one of his biggest concerns moving forward is teams taking advantage of those Huskers having to play out of position.
"The thing that's causing us problems probably more than anything throughout this whole season is when we don't have a low post presence," Sadler said. "Then people are just switching everything and we don't have the advantage. We've got to find a way to continue to get the basketball down low and make something positive happen - not necessarily a basket, but we've just got to get the ball inside. That's been our issue."
Offensively, Sadler said Nebraska would be hurt by the absence of Diaz the most in not being able to effectively run the ball screens that create the majority of its shot opportunities.
"What gives us problems is that (teams) are switching everything, and they're going to switch one through five on us, where we have been able to get the mismatches in the past with Toney or Mike," he said. "It's going to be difficult - I think - where we set a lot of ball screens, there's not going to be any advantages to those, and that's how we score a lot of points. That's got me concerned, and we've got to hope that we can figure out a way to score some points outside of the ball screen offense."
As big of a loss as Diaz might be for the Huskers, it won't be all that new for players like Ubel. When Diaz was forced to sit out five games earlier this season with the same foot injuries, Ubel had to pick up the slack and serve as Nebraska's primary option in the post.
"It's the same as last time," Ubel said. "We're going to have to have some guys step up. A couple of guys are going to have to play some more minutes than they're used to, but we did that earlier in the season, so we know a little bit of what it's like."
The trio had been getting more and more playing time towards the end of the non-conference schedule and on into Big Ten play, but Sadler backed them off when he cut his rotation down to seven, mostly because he said they weren't quite ready for the speed of the game at the Big Ten level.
Rivers has seen the most action of the three this season, but even he has only played in 13 games and averaged a little more than 10 minutes per contest. Both Moore and Hilliard have played in just nine games this season.
"The speed of the Big Ten was maybe a little bit different than what they expected, but they didn't let it discourage them," Sadler said. "The biggest thing is the turnovers. We just didn't have a lot of room for any error, and it seemed like when they were getting the opportunity - as most people do - they got excited and they tried to make things happen too much too quick.
"We'll find out if they've gotten any better at that."
Sadler said all three freshmen have benefited greatly simply from being able to practice with the Huskers for nearly a full season, and all have made significant strides in picking up the offensive and defensive schemes.
It may not be the most ideal circumstance for Rivers, Moore and Hilliard to be thrown back directly into the mix, but the fact is Nebraska doesn't have many other options at this point.
"They weren't ready for the amount of minutes they were getting," Sadler said. "That's not to say they're not ready to play some. The first four games they were getting quite a bit, and I think unfair to them at that particular time. But to their credit, they've continued to work hard, and I think if they're put into the situation, I think they'll be fine."