Nebraska built its identity on defense this season, but since losing their two leaders on that end of the floor, the team has struggled to get stops.
Five of Nebraska’s past six opponents have topped the 70-point threshold, including Michigan who put up 93 points against the Huskers on Wednesday. Nebraska is 1-5 in those six games with the only win coming at home against Penn State when the Huskers held the Nittany Lions to 63.
“Obviously we’re a completely different team on the defensive end without not only Emmanuel, but Juwan,” Coach Fred Hoiberg said. “You’ve got two lengthy defenders that have great experience, that know what they’re doing out there. You look at our numbers, I think we were top 30 in the nation defensively when we had those two guys on the floor and we were basically a man-to-man team … We’re switching things up a lot more. We’re playing a lot more zone, certainly, than we were earlier in the year, and we have to. It’s just something we have to try and do to steal possessions just with the way that we are from from a defensive standpoint as opposed to where we were when we had Emmanuel and we had Juwan on the floor.”
Hoiberg said Michigan hit some tough shots including some the Huskers were willing to live with, but moving forward they have to mitigate the defensive breakdowns or rotation mistakes that led to too many open looks for good shooters.
Sam Griesel said it’s important for the team to get back to its defensive roots and set the tone physically from the start of the game on Saturday. A renewed focus on defensive execution paired with the team’s recent improvement on offense could lead to more success down the stretch of the season. Nebraska has shot 35% from 3 or better in each of its last five games after doing so just six times in its first 20 games.
The biggest reason for the improved shooting is the play of Keisei Tominaga who has topped 20 points in three of his last five games and has shot 16-for-34 (47.1%) from 3 during that stretch.
“Obviously he’s a guy that’s playing with a ton of confidence right now and I give our guys credit for trying to find him and get him good open looks,” Hoiberg said. “Our screening has been good, and I think what makes Keisei special, not his ability to shoot but just his overall movement and his cutting and his getting to the basket and his just as wide variety of shots … The rhythm that he’s playing with, it’s been fun. It’s been fun to be a part of on the offensive end, what he’s doing.
“He has to be more consistent defensively, he knows that, he’d be the first one to tell you that. But he’s been in a great rhythm offensively and we have to continue to get that type of production from Keisei. He and Derrick [Walker] have had really good chemistry out there; they’ve been really fun to to watch together.”
Eleven of Walker’s 15 assists in the last two games were to Tominaga as the 6-foot-2 guard scored 54 points combined between the Penn State and Michigan games. Up next for Nebraska is another stiff defense in Wisconsin. The Badgers currency boast the 28th-ranked defense in the country according to KenPom.
“Physicality is what stands out to me across the board,” Griesel said. “They stick to their principles — not a huge switching team and stuff like that but they’re going to try to out-physical you. We need to cut with pace and I think the last few games our offense has grown somewhat of an identity. Obviously Keisei has gotten hot in the last few games. But we need to come out with confidence and set the tone not only on defense, but when we get stops, that’s when we can really have fun on offense and just play with pace and get out and run.”
Sophomore point guard Chucky Hepburn, the Bellevue West product, is leading the Badgers in with 12.9 points and 3.1 assists per game while shooting 48.1% on nearly five 3-point attempts per game.
“What Chucky Hepburn, the jump that he’s made this year, shooting almost 50% from the 3-point line, he just takes and makes tough, big shots for this team,” Hoiberg said. “His ability to play in the post, he’s a great defender, has some of the best anticipation and hands in our league, and it starts with him. He’s great with the ball in his hands and with the point and getting them into their offense.”
Hepburn played well in his return to Nebraska last season, and he expects to see plenty of familiar faces in the stands after a schedule change prevented many of his friends and family from attending.
“It’s cool,” Griesel said about playing against another Nebraska native. “I don’t know if I’ve played against Chucky, because his freshman year in high school was my senior year, but I don’t think we ever played Bell West. Obviously, since I’ve been in college, I’ve paid attention to his career and hung out with him a few times. He’s a great guy, first and foremost. And I’m really excited. I cannot wait for tomorrow to play against him and Wisconsin as a whole. Obviously, he’s really talented and he’s going to be a main focal point for us to contain him and whatnot. I just think the the environment is going to be awesome tomorrow too.”
Senior forward Tyler Wahl has struggled somewhat since returning from an injury that sidelined him for three games in December but is coming off his best game since his return with 16 points, eight assists and six rebounds in Wisconsin’s win at Penn State on Wednesday. At 6-foot-9 and 225 pounds, Wahl is a crafty post player who does most of his damage at the rim and is averaging 12.0 points per game.
“Watching film on him, I’ve kind of noticed that he reminds me a little bit of myself sometimes,” Griesel said. “But I think I was watching, I can’t remember what game it was the other day, but one of the announcers just said I think guarding the post is the hardest thing to do in college basketball, and obviously he’s very talented when he gets his back to the basket. It’ll be a challenge for us, a challenge that we’re willing to accept and I think our guys are ready for.”
Junior center Steven Crowl (7-foot, 245 pounds) is averaging 12.0 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists as well, but the Badgers as a team are 322nd in the country in 2-point percentage at 46%. However, the Badgers are shooting 36.6% from 3 (48th) and nearly 40% of their points come from the perimeter. Freshman guard Connor Essegian is shooting 44.2% on 5.2 3-point attempts per game and averaging 11.3 points.
“They’ve got some really effective shooters and they do a good job finding them, but it’s kind of the same — they go inside first,” Hoiberg said. “The amount of post ups that they play and play through the post is what Wisconsin has always done, it’s what they’re continuing to do. They’ve got a lot of guys too. They’ll post up anybody on the floor, one through five, and you just have to be ready for it. You have to be strong, can’t bite on the pump fakes, they do a great job, up-and-unders, they continue to pivot. Very similar to how [Jalen] Pickett plays from Penn State on the block, and they do a good job spraying it to the weak side where they have shooters all over the floor.”
Wisconsin climbed as high as No. 14 in the AP poll thanks to an 11-2 start to the season before hitting a rut and losing six of seven. However, the Badgers have won two of three with both wins coming on the road heading into Saturday’s gam in Lincoln.
Tipoff at Pinnacle Bank Arena is set for 3 p.m. CT on Big Ten Network with John Ross Jr. and Shon Morris 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.