The first week fo the 2020-21 college basketball season is in the books, and we got three chances to see Fred Hoiberg’s new Huskers. After eight months of speculation about who would do what and how all the new pieces would fit together, we finally got to see it for ourselves.
What did we learn? I’ll hit on a few things here.
Balance and Ball Movement
First, I asked Dalano Banton what he learned about his team from the three games.
“I learned that we’re going to need everything from everyone in order to be a successful team,” Banton said. “It’s going to go deeper than just me, we’re going to need all 10, 12, however many guys are on this team and I noticed that we need everyone. The way the game’s played, it’s a hard-fought game every time out, throughout all three games we’ve played so far … I love these guys and we’re going to continue to play for each other and play together and hopefully keep coming up with more wins and stay focused.”
Nebraska won its season opener 102-55 against McNeese State, and they did it with tremendous offensive balance — eight guys with eight or more points including four with 14 apiece to lead the way. However, in a 69-66 loss to Nevada, Nebraska had just three players score in double figures while two starters went scoreless.
In Saturday’s 79-57 win against North Dakota State, Nebraska had four double-digit scores including two guys (Teddy Allen and Trey McGowens) who took over in the second half to blow the game open and combine for 41 points.
Allen is going to have some big games this season, but for the most part, the balance is the key to this Nebraska team winning games. In the two wins, Nebraska had 34 assists and 20 turnovers. The offense was more stagnant against Nevada, and the Huskers lost. That’s not a coincidence.
“If the ball movement is lovely, everyone’s happy,” Banton said.
Live by the 3…
Through three games, Nebraska has attempted 97 3-pointers. Welcome to Hoiball.
Unfortunately, the Huskers have shot just 28.9% on those attempts. For comparison’s sake, last year’s team that didn’t shoot nearly well enough to actually win games while playing Hoiberg’s style was at 31.3%. That clearly has to get better.
I saw a lot of fans make comments about the Huskers settling for too many 3s too early in the shot clock, but outside of a few instances, that is what Hoiberg wants. He has a ton of quick-hitting actions baked into his offense to generate open 3-point shots, and he wants his players taking the first good look they find.
The loss to Nevada was a bit extreme with a school record 41 attempts, especially considering only nine of them went in, but I went back and watched every attempt and felt only nine of them were objectively bad shot attempts. The other 32 ranged from decent to really good, and the average time on the shot clock when the shots went up was 19.1. If teams go under screens, collapse on a drive or fail to step out, I think Hoiberg is telling his players to let it fly.
After attempting just two triples in the season opener, Allen went 2-for-7 against Nevada and 3-for-10 against North Dakota State (31.6% overall). Lat Mayen has shot 3-for-7, 2-for-9 and 3-for-6 in the three games (36.4%). The best shooter on last year’s team, Thorir Thorbjarnarson, has attempted at least four 3s each game and is shooting 23.1%. Grad transfer Kobe Webster has shot 25%off the bench on 12 attempts.
“I feel like with our guys, we’re a very unselfish team,” said Banton, who shot 3-of-11 from deep in that Nevada game. “So if it’s me that shoots however many 3-pointers that I shot today, then that’s that. If it’s Lat shooting — we have confidence in whoever’s shooting the ball. That’s the thing about this team, man. We’re 100% invested in each other and we’re rooting for each other. If you put up a shot, we’re going to stand up and say it’s going in. We’re a different type of team and whoever it is shooting, we hope it goes in, we cheer for them when they shoot it, and if they miss it it’s get back on defense, you’re good, shoot the next one. It could be anyone shooting shots; we don’t ever hang our heads on who shoots 3s or who does what. We just try to go out there and leave it all on the floor.”
Nebraska is going to continue to fire away from deep if the defense is giving it to them. Right now, the percentage isn’t something you should worry too much about. Nebraska has two more tune-up games this week to continue figuring some things out. If they’re still shooting under 30% by the end of the day on Sunday, then maybe Hoiberg needs to start thinking about encouraging a bit more patience with this team.
Like Stealing Candy from a Baby
Through three games, opponents are averaging 60.3 points per game against Doc Sadler’s defense. The Huskers are forcing 21.7 turnovers per game and 13.0 of those are steals, which fuel Nebraska’s transition offense.
The Huskers still don’t have a ton of size at the post position, but the added length has shown up in a big way defensively so far this season.
“Defense is going to be the reason we win a lot of games,” Banton said. “We know we can use our length and get into those gaps and when they try to turn around, go double. We have all our movement on point right now. Defense is going to definitely be the key to a lot of our victories and it’s going to be the key to a lot of our losses. If we’re not locked in on defense, then it’s going to hurt us a lot and we know that. We’ve got to do better rebounding and we’re going to get better at it going forward.”
There have been some stretches where the defensive effort has lapsed, and the result hasn’t been pretty, but when they’ve been locked in the Huskers have looked absolutely swarming. Teddy Allen in particular has been all over the passing lanes, recording 13 steals in three games. Banton, Thorbjarnarson and Webster also have five apiece. That being said, steals won’t be so easy to come by when the competition gets tougher.
“We’ve been really active… Doc’s one of the best in the business. I thought when we were shrunk in our gaps, that’s when we got a lot of those deflections and as you know, with Doc’s teams it’s all about trying to keep the ball out of the paint … When we keep it tight, we’re a pretty darn effective team. And the other thing we have is length this year. You’ve got length across the board, you have guys that are out there battling and talking.”
As for Allen, though he’s known more for his offensive prowess, Hoiberg did say he’s not surprised by his defensive production so far.
“At times he gets a little overzealous out there and tries to get out top and gamble,” Hoiberg said. “That’s another thing — against really good teams, the gambles, they’re going to make you pay. As long as you stay in there and do the right thing, you can live with some of that with getting out and being aggressive. We talked about that, when that ball’s going and the dribble’s happening, we want to stay tight and want to attack the ball. We’ve got players with good instincts. You look at what Trey McGowens did, he led the league in steals in the ACC — incredible hands and anticipation. But Teddy’s been good for the most point — when he stays within the game plan.”
It really does start with McGowens. Though he only has four steals through three games — including a foul-plagued second game — the 6-foot-4 Pitt transfer has emerged as Nebraska’s best on-ball perimeter defender on a team filled with active off-ball players. You need both parts to field a disruptive defensive team, and that’s what Sadler is hoping this team can be.
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.