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3 Thoughts from Nebraska’s 81-76 OT Loss to Northwestern

March 01, 2020

Nebraska’s losing streak has now stretched to 14 games. Northwestern has two wins in 19 conference games this season, both against Nebraska.

The latest came in a 81-76 overtime win over the Huskers Sunday afternoon inside Pinnacle Bank Arena.

The Huskers are now 7-22 on the year. Here are three thoughts from the game.

Free Throws

Acknowledging that it’s hard to make such a definitive statement when the stakes are as low as they are, the free throw shooting has to be viewed as completely and utterly unacceptable.

Nebraska shot 32 times from beyond the 3-point line. It made 12 of those.

Nebraska shot 30 times from the free throw line. It made eight of those.

Ouedraogo is probably going to feel like he let his team down on account of the two missed attempts from the line with 22.5 seconds left in overtime and the Huskers down two points. Maybe guard Dachon Burke (19 points) will feel something similar because he dished to Ouedraogo on a two-on-one break instead of attacking the defender himself.

Maybe they should. You have to hit your freebies. But Nebraska missed 22 free throw attempts. It’s not a Ouedraogo problem, it’s an everyone problem.

No team in the last 10 seasons has taken at least 30 free throws and made fewer than 10. Until today.

The Huskers lost by five.

A season-high 21 turnovers did its damage. So did another sub-par shooting night at the rim. But Northwestern could have legitimately gone with a Hack-a-Husker defensive gameplan late and won. Nebraska had a better chance, percentage-wise, of hitting a 3 on the night than it did a stationary, uncontested shot from the free throw line.

The Huskers entered the day with the fifth-worst shooting clip from the free throw line in the country this season. This is a new low. There’s no excuse for that not to be a major emphasis this offseason.

The Center Rotation

Quite the swing for the center position at Nebraska. Kevin Cross has looked like he was going to take Yvan Ouedraogo’s starting job how many times this season? More than a couple. Now, he seems to have slipped from the rotation altogether.

Ouedraogo was once again superb against Northwestern. (Take “superb” in context of what he was playing like earlier in the year.) He had six offensive rebounds in his first 10 minutes on the floor, had double-digit boards by the halftime break, and finished with a career-high 19. He seems to find more comfort around the rim with each passing game.

Nebraska put Cross in at the midway point of the second half, proceeded to get beat on the defensive glass on back-to-back possessions because Cross (among others) didn’t box out, and then pulled him back out after 1:40

Akol Arop, who physically looks like a guard masquerading as a forward masquerading as a center at this point in his career, took Cross’ minutes in the first half to a mixed bag of results. The Huskers probably can’t go that small for prolonged stretches without elite-level shot-making at the other end, but Arop was also better in his minutes than Cross was in his.

Ouedraogo finished a plus-2 in 38 minutes. Arop was plus-3 in three minutes. Cross was minus-10 in four minutes.

What on earth is that position going to look like a year from now?

Senior Day

The first two were about the game. This one is not. Senior Days are retrospective by nature so I don’t feel bad about it.

Haanif Cheatham took a grad transfer to play his final season for a single-digit-win basketball team. He moved from Florida to Lincoln, Nebraska, to be on the first 20-loss team in Nebraska program history. If Fred Hoiberg’s third act as a coach proves a successful one, Cheatham will probably be relegated to a footnote.

But everyone would be wise to remember that Maryland road game when Nebraska played a top-10 team in the country and had a shot at the end to win. Cheatham entered that game having been limited in practice while nursing a calf injury. He gutted it out.

This Husker team gutted it out all season.

I’m someone who generally thinks culture is overblown in the realm of sports. It’s important, but it’s also overrated to the degree it gets brought up. Rough locker rooms win all the time. We say a basketball team win it all a few years ago only to say after the fact there was discord in the locker room all season.

Nebraska’s culture, though, is a good one. The Huskers fight to the final whistle and in a season where they’ve lost a bajillion games—most in situations where they at one point or another had a chance to take over—they’ve gotten off the mat almost every time they’ve gotten punched.

That’s a credit to Hoiberg, because culture is top-down, but the oldest guy in that locker room also deserves credit as well.

Cheatham is a glue guy. He doubles, he helps, he rotates, he goes for loose balls, he leaks out for transition quick-strikes, he makes extra passes, etc. That kind of player sets an expectation in practice for how it’s going to be. Cheatham has Hoiberg’s full trust, and has had it seemingly since the very beginning, I think in part because of his role as a culture keeper (borrowing a football phrase).

On a team with a capped ceiling, that’s just as important as the guy scoring 20 a night.

(Points are still important, Cheatham had 20 of ‘em, on 7-of-11 shooting to pace the Huskers. And he hit two of the biggest triples of the game, one to bring Nebraska within three under two minutes to go in regulation and one to tie the game a few possessions later.)

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