Nebraska dropped to 0-4 against high-major teams with its loss to No. 19 Michigan on Christmas Day.
In the days after the game, Hoiberg sat down with his team — both individually and as a group — to talk through everything they’re seeing nine games into the season.
“We met collectively as a group and sat in a room,” Hoiberg said. “I thought that was a very important thing to do after that Michigan loss, and some of the things that I saw, some of the things that I talked to the team about things that I need to do better, and listened to each of them. They were, to be honest with you, more talkative than they thought they were going to be. Generally when you go sit in those meetings and it’s just the coach and the players, the coach does most of the talking. The guys spoke up and it was a good meeting as a group, and then we had individual meetings as well. Sometimes if you are not comfortable speaking up in a group you’ll say something in an individual meeting. So we learned a lot.”
Hoiberg said the practices since those talks have been productive and full of energy, and that’s one of the major points they discussed — bringing plant of energy to the court. The Huskers have struggled to maintain the same level office throughout an entire 40 minutes on game day during this pandemic-altered season.
“Now the challenge is going out there and battling through adversity,” Hoiberg said. “You see the teams right now that are bringing energy from all over the bench, whatever it is, without any type of crowd to help you through the tough stretches. You look at last night, I thought the energy that Maryland brought to the game at Wisconsin was phenomenal. Minnesota was the same way, and it was the same with Michigan at the beginning of the second half. They had all the energy, and a lot of it was on their bench. Those are things that everybody collectively has to do better if we all are on the same page and have one common goal of winning.”
Nebraska has held a lead or been within a couple possessions in the second half of all four of those losses to high-majors, but each time Nebraska’s offense has dried up and the opponent has gone on a run to pull away.
“What jumps out to me is just how good we can be in stretches,” Teddy Allen said. “Obviously it shows, and then what I know we need to work on is just continuing to jell. We just have to get over the hump as a team where we really come together, play together in a game where we need to and we see that everything works. I feel like after we get over that hump, we’ll be as good as anybody.”
The Huskers haven’t lost the faith during their 4-5 start to the season, but Hoiberg said everything they discussed can’t be just lip service.
“You have to go out and act on what you talked about and carry that over when the game begins,” Hoiberg said. “It can’t just be a practice thing. Obviously the importance of doing it in a game is what it’s all about.”
The Huskers will get their next chance to show progress in that area against another ranked opponent on Wednesday as the Huskers head to Columbus to take on No. 25 Ohio State (7-2, 1-2 Big Ten).
“This will be the most physical team that we’ve played against all year,” Hoiberg said. “They battle you, they fight you through, they pressure, they’re going to whir through screens. So we have to handle that; that will be a new experience as far as being on the floor against this type of physicality.”
Chris Holtmann’s squad went 6-0 in the nonconference including wins over Notre Dame and UCLA. The Buckeyes have lost two of their first three Big Ten games to Purdue and Northwestern, but they were without leading scorer E.J. Liddell against the Boilermakers. Ohio State is struggling mightily from the 3-point line this season at 30.9%, but the Buckeyes are still averaging 76.6 points and are shooting 77.1% from the free-throw line on 24.2 attempts per game.
“They have been very efficient with their offense, and the other thing about it is they do have guys that are very capable of shooting the ball,” Hoiberg said. “You look at what Seth Towns did in the last game knocking down 3s. [Duane] Washington is one of the better shooters in the conference. They have bigs that can step out and are capable of knocking down shots. But they play through their bigs. They try to punch that thing into the paint. They run a lot of high-low-type action. And that’s what I’m talking about with the physicality.”
Liddell has taken a big step forward as a sophomore this season after stepping in for Kaleb Wesson who went pro after nearly averaging a double-double as a junior. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound forward is putting up 15.3 points and 6.7 rebounds. The Buckeyes rotate senior Kyle Young (6-foot-8, 225 pounds) and freshman Zed Key (6-foot-8, 245 pounds) next to Liddell, and that duo is contributing 14.2 points and 11.0 rebounds between them. All three of those bigs average better than two offensive rebounds per game.
“Really the game starts when the ball goes up in the air,” Hoiberg continued. “They get 13 offensive rebounds a game and we have to do a job on the glass if we want a chance to win. They crash a lot, and you look at Young — the guy’s just an absolute beast out there, going after and getting rebounds from all over the floor, and he’ll crash from anywhere. That shot goes up, we’re going to have to do a good job of getting good, physical, hard cut-outs, gang-rebound with five and hopefully get out and get some transition opportunities.”
Nebraska will need some good minutes from Yvan Ouedraogo against Ohio State’s bigs, and the sophomore has stepped up his play since entering the starting lineup. In two Big Ten games, he’s produced 12 points, 12 rebounds and three blocks without a turnover in 55 minutes, and he’s converted six of his eight field goal attempts.
“He’s really played well,” Hoiberg said. “He’s doing exactly what we’re asking him to do. I think he’s playing within himself, he’s playing his role and the big thing, as opposed to earlier in the season, he’s finishing. I think he’s shooting almost 70% the last three games. He unfortunately missed his three free throws last game but has shot the ball better from the line in the previous couple before that. He’s doing good job battling and rebounding, which he always does, using his physical body. He’s an important part of our team just because he does have experience. He went through it as a 17-year-old last year most of the year but gained very valuable experience and knows what this league is all about.”
Washington is leading Ohio State’s perimeter attack with 14.4 points per game, though he’s only shooting 34.8% from the field including 33.3% from deep. California transfer Justice Sueing and senior point guard CJ Walker are both averaging double figures at 10.4 and 10.0 points per game, respectively. Towns, the Harvard transfer, gave the Buckeyes a big spark against Northwestern with 11 points and 3-of-4 3-point shooting in 17 minutes off the bench after playing eight total minutes in the two previous games.
Like Wisconsin, Ohio State has done a great job of taking care of the ball this season, averaging just 9.4 turnovers per game. That could make it tough for Nebraska to get it’s transition game going, though the Buckeyes have seen that number jump to 11.3 in their first three conference games.
Tipoff on Columbus is set for 5:30 p.m. on the Big Ten Network. Brandon Gaudin and Stephen Bardo will be on the call.
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.