Year three of nonconference play is in the books for Fred Hoiberg at Nebraska, and it wasn’t dramatically different than each of the past two.
The Huskers went 6-5 in out-of-conference play, including 0-4 against other high-major teams. Last season, the Huskers went 4-3, though one of those wins was against an NAIA foe in Doane. In Hoiberg’s first season, the team went 5-6.
Through three seasons of nonconference play, Nebraska is 1-8 against other high-major teams, with that lone win coming against lowly Washington State in 2019-20 (the Cougars went 16-16 that year including 6-12 in Pac-12 play).
Nebraska had its chances to score big nonconference wins this year, blowing double-digit leads against both North Carolina State and Kansas State. They also took a bad loss to a low-major team in the opener against Western Illinois. Thus, the Huskers find themselves right back where they’ve been at the end of nonconference play the last two years.
“To be honest, it obviously hasn’t gone the way we wanted it to go,” Lat Mayen said after Nebraska’s win over Kennesaw State. “But as a team, we just have to keep keep building, keep trusting each other, keep building each other’s confidence and get it going.”
This was supposed to be the year the Huskers broke through and competed in the Big Ten. Hoiberg brought back a veteran core of Trey McGowens, Derrick Walker, Mayen and Kobe Webster plus other returners in Eduardo Andre and Trevor Lake. Hoiberg signed Nebraska’s best class in modern recruiting history headlined by the program’s first 5-star recruit in Bryce McGowens, another top-150 player in Wilhelm Breidenbach and a JUCO sharp-shooter in Keisei Tominaga. He added a group of transfers from other high-major teams in Alonzo Verge Jr., C.J. Wilcher and Keon Edwards.
Add in the two early Big Ten games, both losses, and Nebraska is 6-7 as 2021 comes to a close.
“Out of all those losses, we’re learning, and that’s the biggest thing,” Verge said. “We’re learning and we’re going through adversity right now. I feel like when it does come to that time where we’re in a game and it’s a close game, we have been through everything. Our back has been against the wall this whole season, so I feel like it’s prepping us for what’s coming ahead. I trust my team fully and I just feel like this is what we needed to open up the gates for us.”
Nebraska is averaging 75.0 points and allowing 76.4 points per game. The Huskers are top-10 in adjusted tempo and possession length, according to KenPom, yet only 181st in adjusted offensive efficiency and 111th in adjusted defensive efficiency.
Nebraska’s offensive woes start at the 3-point line, where the Huskers rank 334th in the country at 27.5%, and that’s only because of the best shooting display of the Hoiberg era in Nebraska’s win over Kennesaw State to close out the nonconference. Yet Nebraska is attempting 25.8 3s per game, 75th in the country. The Huskers are actually 64th in 2-point percentage at 53.6% (thanks largely to Walker) and their free-throw rate is top-50 as well. But when the team is but around 3-point shooting at it can’t make 3s, that is a massive problem.
Right now, Tominaga is leading Nebraska in both attempts (5.6 per game) and percentage (34.2%) from deep. Bryce McGowens is next at 4.8 attempts per game yet he’s only shooting 24.2%. C.J. Wilcher is firing up 4.4 treys per game and only hitting them at a 33.3% clip.
Nebraska’s top two returning shooters in Mayen and Webster have both underwhelmed to a significant degree. Mayen led the team in made 3s last year while hitting them at a 34.8% rate, and this year’s just 10-of-42 (23.8%) through his first 12 games. Webster was right behind Mayen in 3s and he led the team in percentage at 38%. This year, he’s 10-of-32 (31.3%) in 11 games and four of those makes came in his first one.
Nebraska is going to need someone (preferably multiple someones) to find some kind of consistency from beyond the arc in order to compete in the Big Ten.
What’s making the 3-point problem even worse is that after a solid start to the season with ball security (10.4 turnover per game through the first seven) the Huskers have gotten loose with it recently, turning it over 15.5 times per game in the last six.
According to Synergy Sports Technology, Nebraska is scoring 0.888 points per possession (PPP), ranked in the 43rd percentile and considered average. The Huskers have three play types with more than 180 possessions so far this season, and they’re average or worse at all three of them, which isn’t where you want to be.
Nebraska’s most common play this season is spot up (23.2% of their possessions) and the Huskers are averaging just 0.841 PPP (23rd percentile, below average) while shooting 32.9% from the field. Nebraska likes to spread the floor and attack (whether it be pick-and-roll, isolation or something else) which leads to a lot of kick-outs for jumpers or opportunities to attack closeouts.
The problem is Nebraska is shooting just 24.5% on all catch-and-shoot jumpers in the half court this season (second percentile nationally), including 28.9% on unguarded shots. That goes back to the problems we spelled out above with the percentages from the team’s top percentages.
We know Hoiberg wants his teams to play fast (see the tempo number above). Unfortunately, this team isn’t very good at using that tempo to its advantage. The Huskers are scoring just 1.011 PPP in transition (45th percentile, average) on 17.4% of their possessions. However, that numbers was boosted by the Huskers scoring 31 points on 21 transition possessions against Kennesaw State (12-of-14 shooting including 5-of-7 from 3). In the first 12 games, Nebraska scored just 0.952 points per possession. The 3-point shooting woes factor in here, but so does turning the ball over 15.3% of the time.
Bryce McGowens (0.958 PPP) and Verge (0.905 PPP) need to be better, because they’ve accounted for nearly half of Nebraska’s fast break possessions. They’ll be the ones running the break most often.
Nebraska’s third high-volume play type is ick-and-roll ball-handler, which makes up 16.7% of its possessions. The Huskers are scoring just 0.724 PPP (44th percentile, average) and shooting just 34.4% from the field with a 17.1% turnover rate.
Verge accounts for nearly 60% of Nebraska’s pick-and-roll possessions by himself and is shooting 37.1% and turning the ball over 20.6% of the time. Bryce McGowens has 41 possessions as the pick-and-roll ball-handler and is shooting 26.7% with a 14.6% turnover rate. Decision-making has to improve for both of them.
Nebraska has actually been very effective in a lot of other areas. The Huskers are scoring 1.317 PPP on cuts (85th percentile, excellent), 0.889 PPP in isolation (75th percentile, very good), 1.128 PPP in the pick-and-roll when targeting the roll man (75th percentile, very good), 1.244 PPP on put-backs (85th percentile, excellent) and 0.939 PPP on post-ups (79th percentile, very good).
The problem is all of those play types combined for less than half the possessions of the top three. Nebraska either needs to find a way to improve in spot-up, transition and pick-and-roll situations or Hoiberg has to prioritize the other areas in which the Huskers are doing well.
Despite the struggles through the first 13 games, Verge expressed confidence in the team’s ability to turn things around.
“I’m not giving up on this team,” Verge said. “I’m not I’m not going to stop working hard every day. I’m not going to stop pushing these guys. We’re going to keep this thing going and we’re going to figure it out.”
The Huskers already have two conference losses under their belt thanks to the December Big Ten games. They put up a good fight defensively against Indiana in Bloomington but couldn’t score enough to secure the upset, and Michigan ran them off their own floor.
Now Nebraska will see nothing but Big Ten opponents the rest of the way, and the first half of the conference schedule is brutal. The players and Hoiberg all highlighted trusting in each other and playing together as a big key to navigate that gauntlet.
“I think all but Indiana made the tournament in our January schedule, and Indiana is obviously a lot better this year,” Hoiberg said after the Kennesaw State game. “So it’s going to be a brutal stretch that we have. But we’ve just got to continue to work and hopefully shoot the ball like we did tonight.”
The battle begins on Jan. 2 when Nebraska hosts Ohio State.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.