Nebraska’s loss at Illinois on Tuesday was the team’s fourth straight, all by double figures. The Huskers actually took a 50-48 lead in Champaign with 12 minutes to go, only to score six more points the rest of the way.
Derrick Walker said the takeaway from the teams film study was simple: they need to take care of the ball better if they want to have a chance to win games late.
“We’ve harped on it all year,” Walker said. “It’s up to us. We came out of the gate with so many bad turnovers in the second half and we were still up … I think we never just took the time to realize as bad as we were, we were still in the game and it felt worse than what it looked … It’s just in those moments we need to hone in on the opportunity and understand where we are at in the game and just take care of the ball more and get stops and rebounds. Rebounds hurt us a lot. So just box out, get rebounds and run our offense.”
Nebraska (10-13, 3-9 Big Ten) has 50 turnovers is its last three games that have led to 62 points on the other end of the floor. Th Huskers’ turnover rate overall this season has risen to 19.6%, 258th in the country. Nebraska’s 3-point shooting has improved (36%, 42.9% and 40% in the last three), but it hasn’t mattered because of the turnovers.
“We have to start valuing possessions, taking care of the basketball, and we’re just shooting ourselves in the foot right now,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “In the last two games, we had 19 turnovers against Maryland, and we had 15 at Illinois and still had a chance. We had a lead with 11 minutes left and that game at Illinois even though we turned it over four of the first five possessions in that second half. So that’s what it’s going to come down to is valuing possessions, taking care of the ball, rebounding — we have to rebound better. When we get shots on the rim, we’ve been more efficient lately. I think three of our last four halves we were over 50%, we were almost 58% in the second half at Maryland, and just again, it’s about valuing the basketball.”
A certain number of turnovers is to be expected with freshmen stepping into expanded roles following the injuries to two veterans, but Nebraska can’t afford for its best players to give the ball away so often. Walker himself has 16 turnovers in his last three games.
“Some were sloppy, some were just me getting sped up,” Walker said. “I put a lot of that on me just not reading the defense correctly all the time and sometimes just passing the ball loosely with one hand, just not really thinking in the moment how detrimental that turnover may be, whether it’s a travel or me just giving the ball to the defense. So just a lot of sloppy ones that I need to correct.”
Nebraska’s defense has also slipped since Juwan Gary and Emmanuel Bandoumel (who have both undergone successful surgery and are working towards recovery; expected timelines are five to six months for Gary and eight to nine months for Bandoumel, according to Nebraska athletic trainer R.J. Pietig), which is to be expected. Some of that has to do with turnovers leading to transition buckets on the other end, but the Huskers have had a more difficult time defending without fouling recently as well. Maryland and Illinois combined to shoot 48 free throws in Nebraska’s last two games.
“We’ve got to quit fouling,” Hoiberg said. “We were one of the top teams in the league at defending without fouling, at opponent free throw-attempt rate; I think we were top three for a lot of this year. In the last couple of games, Maryland goes 24-of-26 and Illinois got too many as well, and Derrick obviously finished the game on the bench, which which puts us in a tough position. So it’s all about correcting. The good thing is these are correctable mistakes that we’re making, and if we do that we’re going to give ourselves a chance.”
The Huskers will get a crack at correcting those mistakes against the team that started their losing streak as Penn State visits Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday afternoon. The Nittany Lions beat Nebraska 76-65 at the Bryce Jordan Center on Jan. 21, the day Bandoumel suffered his knee injury.
“Obviously [Andrew] Funk really got it going on us early,” Hoiberg said. “They started the game with a four-point play and we dug a 10-point hole out of the chute; it was 10-nothing, we called a timeout, we got resettled, we battled back and we ended up losing the game by I think 10 or 11. So you eliminate our start, we were right there and certainly had chances. But they’re a very confident basketball team and they run a lot of really good actions.”
Funk led the perimeter-oriented Nittany Lions with 23 points while shooting 5-of-10 from 3. Forward Seth Lundy added 16 points and shot 3-of-7 from deep. The Huskers limited Penn State’s star point guard, Jalen Pickett, to 12 points and forced five turnovers, but he also only missed two shots, grabbed 13 rebounds and dished out five assists.
“We did some good things, and then some things, looking back, where our hands weren’t active enough on him,” Hoiberg said. “He’s such a gifted passer and he’s obviously a great rebounder on both ends of the floor. We have to have good activity, which we did on some possessions, but when he’s able to zip it over and you’ve got Lundy and Funk on the perimeter on the back side, it puts you in a really tough position. We just have to mix coverages. I think you saw a lot of things in the Illinois game, we tried to keep them off balance a little bit with the changing defenses. We’re going to have to continue to do that.”
Penn State is sitting at 14-8 overall including 5-6 in Big Ten play thanks to a sharp-shooting offense that doesn’t turn the ball over. Penn State is 22nd in adjusted offensive efficiency as it is shooting 38.5% from 3 (15th) with the ninth-highest 3-point rate in the country while turning it over on just 13% of its possession (first nationally). Penn State is also effective with its opportunities inside he arc (53.4%, 58th) and at the foul line (76.9%, 17th).
“Obviously they can really shoot it, and you saw that in their Michigan game at home two games ago, and then they actually got off to a really good start at Purdue … They pose a lot of problems, they’ve got shooting all over the floor with starting [Michael] Henn now at the five,” Hoiberg said. “He, I think, had her first 11 points in the game at at Purdue, so he just brings a whole different element into the game with his ability to stretch the floor at the five spot; he’s a guy that really shoots it.”
Denver transfer Michael Henn — a seventh-year player who has also made stops at UC Davis, Cal Baptist and Portland — has started in Penn State’s last two games after playing limited minutes for much of the season. He scored 11 and 10 points in his first two starts while shooting 5-of-8 from 3.
“It’s a little tough just because they’re not as big, so they’re able to play more out on the wing a lot more and they’ve got a lot of good shooters and they have a really good guard that likes to post up,” Walker said. “So you don’t want to let him get going, but you also don’t want to let him just be able to pick our defense apart and just spray out to shooters. So for us, stopping their shooters is probably the most important for us and just having our rotations down.”
Tipoff is set for 3:30 p.m. CT Sunday on Big Ten Network with Kevin Kugler and Jess Settles on the call.
Jacob Padilla has been writing for Hail Varsity since 2015. He covers football, volleyball men’s basketball and prep sports. He also co-hosts the Nebraska Preps Postgame and Nebraska Shootaround podcasts for the Hurrdat Media and Hail Varsity podcast networks. 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.