Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Huskers Go to the Lab for Free Throw Solutions

January 06, 2023

Nebraska has had some rough performances at the free-throw line this season, but Tuesday’s 8-for-20 outing against Michigan State was by far the worst.

Nebraska is now shooting 63.4% on the season, 340th in the country. Nebraska’s top three in attempts per game are all shooting significantly worse than they did a year ago. Nebraska doesn’t get to the line a ton (272nd in free-throw rate), but losing out on those supposedly easy points looms large when the margin for error is nonexistent while trying to dig out of a first-half hole.

“We’ve been better; I think we were 73% since the Creighton game, so we were trending in the right direction,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “But at one point [against Michigan State], I think we were 3-for-12. We had six and-ones in the second half and we converted on one of them, and that’s hard. Instead of being 12, that thing could have been five or six points and now you put some heat on and you put some pressure on them and anything can happen. So you’ve got to find a way to convert those easy ones.”

To address the issue, Hoiberg has tried to get creative, taking advantage of Nebraska’s sports performance lab to diagnose mechanical issues and provide more scientific feedback. They used motions capture technology to study shooting forms and routines.

“We put those little metallic balls on the guys all over their bodies and we looked at tempo, we looked at how their weight distribution was on the free-throw line … Now we’re seeing trends, and one of the guys’ weight really shifted to the left side as he was going up on the free throw,” Hoiberg said. “So then we made a few adjustments, and then you see it and now you see it from a scientific standpoint. We’ve got all these great resources at our discretion, so we’re pulling everything out … It’s just another tool and hopefully, if nothing else, just get their minds thinking a little bit differently and hopefully give them a little bit of confidence.” 

Hoiberg promised that the team is shooting plenty of free throws in practice, but that only matters if they can carry their performance from the practice floor over to the games.

“I think free throws are 95% mental,” Griesel said. “You can shoot however many free throws a day, but you can’t really simulate how it feels, I guess, in a game situation. I think it’s more just getting your mind right. Obviously we shoot a lot of free throws in practice, we’re working on it day in and day out, but like I said, it’s hard to simulate what it’s like to feel that in a game, so just making sure our minds are right before our games.”

The free-throw line isn’t the only place Nebraska’s struggling to hit shots. The Huskers went 2-for-16 from 3 and are now shooting 29.3% (29th) on the season. Players that have proven themselves to be good shooters at the college level (C.J. Wilcher and Emmanuel Bandoumel in particular) are shooting well below what they’ve done previously. Griesel said his message to the team amid the struggles is to remain positive.

“I’ve seen guys absolutely go off in practice, some really impressive stuff, and I know it’s coming; we know as a group,” Griesel said. “This program is built off of trust, and that’s from the top to the bottom. We all trust each other and we know it’s coming. We’re just taking it day by day and not getting satisfied or dissatisfied with results and stuff like that. Just take it as a day-by-day process, keep working hard and we know the flood gates will open sooner or later.”

Griesel said the loss to Michigan State left a bad taste in their mouths, and now they’ll get another opportunity to wash that taste out with another game on the road as the Huskers head to Minneapolis for an early tipoff against the Golden Gophers on Saturday.

“Our guys have been really good at it all year, bouncing back whether it’s a win or a loss and find a way to get back to work,” Hoiberg said. “Very important game; obviously a little bit of a different game as far as time is concerned to play before noon, go out there and play at 11 o’clock in the morning. We’ve just got to hopefully get off to a good start. It’s important in early games that you get out of the gate fast and hopefully go out and play complete 40-minute game, which we did not do the other night. 

“Our physicality wasn’t where it needed to be against that Michigan State team; they got us in transition early. Second half I thought we played pretty well, especially on the offensive end I thought we were very efficient. But it’s hard to climb out of a 22-point hole on the road against a great team, so we can’t put ourselves in that position. We have to get off to a good start and sustain it.”

Minnesota (6-7, 0-3 Big Ten) presents the best chance at a road win Nebraska might have all season. The Golden Gophers are 191st in KenPom, the sixth-lowest of all high-major teams, and their best win is against No. 175 Cal Baptist in overtime. They’re 5-3 at the Barn so far this season, but they are also coming off a 63-60 loss at Wisconsin were they pushed the Badgers to the final possession and Hoiberg said he’s been impressed with how they’ve played lately for Coach Ben Johnson.

“It’s a very talented team and I was really impressed with the way they played at Wisconsin, a top-15 team on the road and played them to a one-possession game,” Hoiberg said. “They had the ball down three on the last possession. [Jamison] Battle is one of the more difficult covers in our league because of his versatility and his ability to score the ball all over the floor. [Dawson] Garcia poses a lot of problems at the five because of his ability to pop out on the floor; about half the time he rolls, half the time he pops. So we have to be on point with our coverages. They have got good size in their backcourt and they have good physicality. They’re very sound on the defensive end of the floor; I think Ben is terrific on that end.”

Garcia, the Minnesota native who made stops at Marquette and North Carolina before returning home to play for the Gophers, is leading the team with 14.2 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. He’s only shooting 27.3% from deer but is taking 3.4 3s per game.

Battle, a 6-foot-7 wing who led the team in scoring while shooting 36.6% from 3 last season, missed the first four games because of injury and hasn’t quit replicated his play since he’s returned, averaging 12.9 points on 34.7% shooting (33.8% from 3).

Ta’Lon Cooper, a 6-foot-4 transfer from Morehead State, is running the point this season, averaging 10.4 points and 6.6 assists while shooting 55.6% from 3 (but only 38% inside the arc and 51.2% from the foul line).

Minnesota is ranked 143rd in adjusted defensive efficiency, last in the Big ten. However, their strength lines up with Nebraska’s offensive strength. The Gophers are 50th in opponent 2-point percentage at 45.5% while Nebraska is 83rd offensively inside the arc at 52.7%.

“We have to make shots; that’s a big part of it,” Hoiberg said. “That would be helpful if we can take take the lid off a little bit and loosen things up on the inside. But they do a great job — they front the post, their help on the back side is on point, they really get out and show on the ball screens with the blitzing, aggressive coverage that takes teams out of their offense and tries to make them uncomfortable, which they do a really good job of. They get back in transition and they make you score in the halfcourt. We just have to try to do a good job getting the ball where we need it with some room and, again, hopefully knock down some shots.”

Defensively or the Huskers, Minnesota is 310th in the country in turnover percentage at 21.1%, which could provide the Huskers opportunities for easy transition buckets if they are locked in and aggressive on the other end.

“It’s very important that when you’re struggling to score the ball in the halfcourt, if you can find a way to manufacture some offense with deflections, with turning teams over, that’s going to help and it helps with confidence too,” Hoiberg said. “I think when you look back at the Iowa game, we made shots early in that game and you jump out to a big lead and it just it makes your job a lot easier. So if we can get out and disrupt and hopefully create some turnovers, that would help some of our offensive woes right now …”

Hoiberg called back-up center Blaise Keita, who missed the previous two games with an ankle injury, a game-time decision for Saturday. 

“He did a lot in practice today and did a little bit more yesterday,” Hoiberg said. “He was a little bit sore this morning but we decided to see how he responded and tape him up and put him through pretty much the entire workout. So these next 24 hours, obviously, are important … but we’ll see how he responds, give him a couple of treatments tomorrow, warm him up and see if he’s ready.”

Tipoff on Saturday is set for 11 a.m. on Big Ten Network with Cory Provus and Rapheal Davis on the call.

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