Huskers Preparing to Face Butler in First Round of NIT
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Five Factors: Nebraska’s First Health Check-Up

December 24, 2018

College basketball is streaky.

For instance, James Palmer Jr.’s sudden proficiency from beyond the arc is more weekly sidebar than any kind of sustainable trend. Not only is the sample size too small — three games and 17 total shots — but at 13 of his last 17, Palmer is converting at a 76.5 percent clip. That’s more than double his career average of 32.6 percent.

Regression to the norm is coming at some point. No one shoots that well from 3.

Instead, why not focus on the senior guard’s shot selection? He’s shooting more at the rim, taking fewer non-paint twos and getting a greater percentage of shots from the free throw line than he has before. Those are trends that suggest the scorer’s career-high 19.9 points per game right now won’t be taking any big hits when conference play opens; he’s taking the right kinds of shots.

There are a handful of factors that signal sustainable success in college basketball. Dean Oliver worked up a “Four Factors” model that looks at shooting, turnover percentage, rebounding percentage and free throws. It works, but it also feels like it could use a modern tweak, especially given the way Nebraska plays.

I’m going to borrow Bill Connelly’s Five Factors from SB Nation (influenced in part by Oliver’s four) and apply them to basketball. Connelly uses efficiency, explosiveness, field position, finishing and turnovers for football. Here, let’s use pure shooting, 3-point ability, shot position, rebounding and turnovers to forecast success or trouble for Nebraska throughout the rest of the season.

Efficiency — Shooting

The most basic measure in basketball — how well do you shoot it. True shooting adds your free throw shooting, 3-point shooting and regular field goal shooting percentages into one number, with shots weighted appropriately by spot on the floor. 

  Offense Defense
Percentage 58.6% 44.9%
National rank t-32nd 4th
Big Ten rank 4th 1st

Surprise, surprise, Nebraska is a top-50 shooting team in the country. A lot of that has to do with three of the core four averaging career-highs from the field.

Palmer has a true shooting mark of 57.7 percent because he’s taking and making more free throws, he’s taking more 3s than ever before and hitting at a respectable rate and his shooting from two hasn’t suffered.

Forward Isaac Copeland has a true shooting mark of 63.1 percent; he hasn’t ever been above 56 before this season. His 3-point production is virtually the same year-over-year, his free throw attempts are up and his twos are either high-percentage looks near the basket or in his sweet spot (the elbow and nail areas, normally bad shots but when your guy is comfortable there, you live with it). That speaks to a senior who has settled into his game and knows how to get himself buckets.

Guard Glynn Watson is over 53 percent for the first time in his career, and he’s blown past it. Watson’s true shooting is up at 59.5 percent. Armon Gates, the newcomer on Nebraska's coaching staff, has done wonders with Watson's mechanics (he's not short-arming shots anymore) and confidence. Watson isn't looking for contact on drives as much as he was in the past, now he's looking to finish.

Copeland is eighth in the Big Ten in shooting. Watson is 14th. Guard Thomas Allen Jr. rounds out the starting five with a mark of 62.5 percent and guard Nana Akenten comes off the bench hitting at a 58.7 percent clip. If Allen and Akenten each took enough shots to qualify, they'd be among the top 20 Big Ten shooters as well.

But 32nd isn't elite and yet Nebraska still has the best margin of victory in the conference.

The defense is tremendous and has been all season. (Why is being saved for later).

Average shooting around Division I basketball this season is about 45 percent. Nebraska has held opponents below that in 10 of its 12 games. A few weeks ago, Hail Varsity published a piece calling the Nebrasketball defense elite; things haven't changed since.

Explosiveness — 3-pointers

The equalizer. A triple is like an explosive pass in football. It's a game-changer and if you hit enough, a game-breaker.

  Offense Defense
3P percentage 36.8% 26.6%
National rank 80th 9th
Big Ten rank 6th 1st
3PA rate 41.1% 28.6%
National rank t-114th 2
Big Ten rank 3rd 1

Again, look at the defense. 

The "3PA rate" is a team's percentage of shots that come from 3. So Nebraska gives up fewer triples than all but one team in college basketball and has the ninth-best shot defense against those 3s. You're not going to get them up and when you do, you're not going to hit them.

Nebraska's length does well to run teams off the 3-point line. That's the defensive design for head coach Tim Miles' system and the lineups he's afforded helps in that regard. Palmer's length bothers everyone, Watson's intensity means he can cover bigger guards no problem because he keeps in his stance and stays disciplined with his hands, and athletic bigs like Copeland and Roby mean Nebraska can switch one through five comfortably.

Then when there are open shots to be had, they're not open for long. Nebraska is one of the most fundamentally sound teams closing out you'll find. Guys contest shots without running themselves out of the play or fouling shooters. 

Field Court Position — Shot defense

The "why the defense has been great" part. 

  At the rim 2-point jumpers 3-point jumpers
Percentage of shots 37.4% 34.0% 28.6%
Big Ten rank 8th 2nd 1st
FG percentage 53.2% 30.7% 26.6%
Big Ten rank 4th 1st 1st

Defense in the modern game is about forcing low-percentage shots. A 19-foot jumper, percentage-wise, is as tough as a 22-foot jumper but worth one fewer point. It’s a bad shot. And forward-thinking offenses don’t want to take it. And forward-thinking defenses want to force it. And Nebraska is really good at forcing it.

Only one other Big Ten team forces more than a 30 percent rate on non-paint twos, and no one is close to Nebraska’s 34 percent. Roughly a third of opposing offense comes from bad shots. 

Then you factor in the shooting percentage and you start to see why Nebraska is built to last even when its offense isn’t firing on all cylinders.

It makes sense, too. Nebraska closes so hard on perimeter shots in an attempt to run teams off the 3-point line. Then rotations come on time forcing ball-handlers into a decision. Pull up for a mid-range jumper or test Isaiah Roby at the rim, where teams are shooting the fourth-lowest percentage in the league.

Finishing Possessions — Rebounding

This one is somewhat hard to explain.

  Nebraska Opponents
Rebound percentage 50.9% 49.1%
National rank t-166th t-166th
Big Ten rank 12th 13th

The last time out, the Huskers won a game by 24 points in which they were outrebounded 49-38. That was against Cal State Fullerton.

Isaiah Roby’s regression is probably the best way to begin talking about the rebounding. Last season, the forward averaged 10.4 rebounds per 40 minutes. This year, he’s at 8.9. He’s getting fewer available rebounds than he was last season and he sits at 19th in the conference in rebounding percentage. Which would be fine if other guys were picking up the slack, but the other two starters you'd rely on for rebounding — Palmer and Copeland — have seen their numbers drop as well.

Nebraska's lineup is small, so there are going to be nights when the rebounding is tilted, but rebounding could become an issue in Big Ten play if Nebraska can't hold its own.

The small-ball lineup is what allows Nebraska to have success, having to go away from it could prove problematic. Miles has experimented with lineups featuring Roby on the wing next to Copeland and Brady Heiman or Tanner Borchardt, but the offensive efficiency drops significantly with three bigs on the floor. 


I've written before about Nebraska's effectiveness when running in transition versus running offense in the halfcourt. The collective athleticism of the Huskers' roster means Nebraska can get just about whatever it wants against a scrambling defense. 

But in order to do that, you've got to turn the other team over.

  Nebraska Opponents
Turnovers per 100 possessions 13.8 18.9
National rank t-24th t-75th
Big Ten rank 3rd 3rd
% of def. possessions ending in a steal 12.0% 7.2%
National rank t-28th t-39th
Big Ten rank 2nd 5th

Nebraska is one of the best at limiting its own giveaways and forcing live-ball turnovers. 

It does no good if the bulk of your turnovers are dead-ball takeaways and you're bringing the ball from out of bounds. You're still going against a set defense. But, if you get extra possessions from within the run of play, that's when the offense can get rolling.

So Nebraska being good at forcing the action bodes well. 

You could say that about most everything on this list so far, save for the rebounding. Keep an eye on that.

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