Behind the Box Score: A Good Year for NU in Assists Still Isn't a Good Year
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Behind the Box Score: A Good Year for NU in Assists Still Isn’t a Good Year

April 17, 2019

Since the 2018-19 basketball season officially went in the books, I have been looking at some season-long numbers, splits and other random things that give a little insight into what caused the year to go awry. 

First I looked at box plus/minus from the year, then rim finishing, then 3-point defense. Now, a look at the assist numbers for the Huskers. The following is just going to be data with context. There won’t be a ton of commentary from my end; you can draw your own conclusions on what really went wrong and why.

Let’s just start with a collection of assist numbers and general ball movement metrics.

  ASTs Rank AST% Rank TOV% Rank
2018-19 466 t-122nd 50.9% 212th 12.3% t-4th
2017-18 446 t-176th 54.4% t-122nd 13.9% t-31st
2016-17 354 314th 44.6% 328th 15.9% t-156th
2015-16 397 t-238th 44.0% 330th 14.9% t-110th
2014-15 315 t-323rd 47.4% 302nd 17.1% t-231st
2013-14 304 339th 42.3% t-338th 14.7% t-82nd
2012-13 325 t-312th 45.9% 322nd 15.1% t-47th

>> This past season, the Huskers averaged 12.9 assists a night. It's the second-best season of the Tim Miles era at Nebraska in terms of shot-creation and you can credit James Palmer Jr. and Glynn Watson Jr. for that. With both of the senior guards averaging at least three assists each a night, they became the first pair of Huskers to do so in the same season since the 2011-12 campaign.

>> The rest of the assist numbers are objectively awful. There are 351 teams in Division I college basketball. In five of Miles' seven seasons, the Huskers ranked among the 50 worst basketball teams in the country in assist percentage (assists per 100 possessions or percentage of possessions that end in assist).

When you think about Nebraska basketball in recent years, at least offensively, a lot of the discussion is dominated by over-dribbling and scoring droughts. When a unit either doesn't have an elite set-up guy or a system that promotes ball movement, this is what happens. 

Watson had fine court vision but the highest per-game average for assists in his career was 3.2. That's not strong enough on its own. He finished 2018 ranked 18th in the Big Ten in assist percentage. 

>> For all the offensive woes, Nebraska did well to value each possession. Both Palmer and Watson ranked inside the Big Ten's top 10 for turnover percentage and Thomas Allen Jr. cracked the top-20.

>> Some splits with regards to assist numbers:

  Assists per game % of made baskets
Nonconference 15.4 54.5%
Big Ten  11.7 48.4%
Postseason 12.6 51.2%

They averaged 14.9 assists in wins and 10.8 in losses. Generally you're going to have more assists in wins than losses considering you're likely making more shots in a win than in a loss, but 2018 saw the biggest average swing Nebraska had under Miles.

  • 2017: 14.8 in wins, 10.9 in losses
  • 2016: 13.3 in wins, 10.2 in losses
  • 2015: 13.4 in wins, 10.2 in losses
  • 2014: 10.8 in wins, 9.7 in losses
  • 2013: 9.9 in wins, 8.9 in losses
  • 2012: 11.8 in wins, 8.2 in losses

>> For those curious, Fred Hoiberg only had one Iowa State team that ranked lower in assist percentage than Nebraska's best season under Miles.

  • 2014: 58.1 percent, tied for 73rd
  • 2013: 62.4 percent, 12th
  • 2012: 58.2 percent, tied for 60th
  • 2011: 57.1 percent, tied for 83rd
  • 2010: 55.2 percent, tied for 131st

The Cyclones led the Big 12 in raw assists per game in each of Hoiberg's last two years, tied for the league lead in 2012, finished fourth in 2011 and third in 2010. Nebraska hasn't finished higher than 11th in the Big Ten since its first year in the league.

  • Never miss the latest news from Hail Varsity!

    Join our free email list by signing up below.