Nebraska (7-1, 1-0 Big Ten) opened up conference play on the right side of things Sunday afternoon against Illinois (2-6, 0-1 Big Ten). A hot-and-cold shooting night for the Huskers paired with another stout defensive performance made for a bit of an awkward feeling game, but the Huskers came out on top, 75-60.
Here are three quick reactions from it.
Streaky, Streaky, Streaky
I will not make a weather-shooting joke. I will not make a weather-shooting joke. It was cold outside. It was cold inside, too. That’s all I’ll say on that matter. But Nebraska’s scoring was streaky at best.
The Huskers finished things shooting 48 percent from the field and were determined to drive the paint rather than settling for 3-point jumpers, but they still went long stretches with nothing to show for their offensive efforts. And those were sandwiched around quick scoring binges.
In the first 2:24 of the game, the Husker offense ignited for 13 points. A couple trips to the free throw line for James Palmer Jr. (who finished with 23 points), a couple strong defensive possessions and a Glynn Watson Jr. triple had Pinnacle Bank Arena rocking.
But the next 6:08 of game clock saw Nebraska put up just three points. Then the Huskers scored nine points over the next 1:25. Then went scoreless over the next 4:08. Then closed the final 3:11 of the first half out with 10 points. Like I said, streaky. And you bet it bled into the second half.
Nebraska got to the free throw line at a strong rate (30 on the game) but that was by design; it didn’t really mess up Nebraska’s offensive flow. At least, it shouldn’t have. Instead, the offense looked like it normally does — explosive on the break and disjointed in the halfcourt. And that was against one of the worst field goal percentage defenses in basketball. Illinois overplaying literally everything everywhere all the time just added to the whole feeling.
Let’s Talk About the Defense
Let’s call a spade a spade.
Nebraska’s defense is elite.
The Huskers entered the day with the best defense in college basketball by defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) and the second-best shooting defense (41.3 true shooting percentage allowed). I guess they weren’t ready to give those spots up. In their conference opener, Nebraska held its fifth opponent in eight games this season to 60 points or less. The Illini had been held under 70 just once entering the day.
Illinois shot mid-40s from the field for most of the game, finishing at 40 percent, but a bunch of the buckets were earned. Tough midrange jumpers over a defender, crazy contested finishes at the rim, few free throw opportunities (13 total); Nebraska made things difficult.
And that’s really what head coach Tim Miles’ squad has been doing all season. They’re sound covering the pick-and-roll. They communicate really well. Rotations are rarely late. Nebraska gets out to contest everything; length is one thing but you need the effort to close out and everyone on Nebraska’s bench gives that effort on every possession.
Nebraska’s defensive aptitude ensures there won’t ever be a game the Huskers are truly out of unless the offense just completely fails them. You think back to the 70-52 loss to Texas Tech, that feels like the extreme. If Nebraska keeps a defensive intensity for a full 40 minutes, its not likely to get blown out too often.
It also means Nebraska can go through up-and-down shooting nights and it won’t affect them the way it would most teams.
Plus it generates stuff like this. And when you’re at home, these can be lethal.
A Conscious Night from Deep
Sunday marked a season-low for the Huskers in 3-point attempts. By a wide margin, too.
Nebraska only took 14. The previous season-low was 20.
When 3-point shooting is as adventurous as it is for the Huskers, the best way to handle your business is by not forcing it. The “they’ll eventually fall” approach works for a few games but eventually you’ve got to adjust. Nebraska took two triples on its final possession of the first half, both more desperation than honest looks, so if we throw those out, it’s 6-for-12.
Both numbers look great. Even better when you add in the fact Nebraska only took them when open. There were one, maybe two (maybe?) pull-up looks all night that were forced. The majority were generated, high-percentage looks. And imagine that, the Huskers shot a season-high percentage on those looks (43 percent).
Miles will be happy with that.
Next on the docket for the Huskers is 6-1 Minnesota, on the road, on Wednesday. Tip for that one is set for 8 p.m. CT.
Derek is a newbie on the Hail Varsity staff covering Husker athletics. In college, he was best known as ‘that guy from Twitter.’ He has covered a Sugar Bowl, a tennis national championship and almost everything in between (except an NCAA men’s basketball tournament game… *tears*). In his spare time, he can be found arguing with literally anyone about sports.