New Nebraska Basketball Squad Has Sneaky Defensive Intrigue
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

New Nebraska Basketball Squad Has Sneaky Defensive Intrigue

May 16, 2019

Doc Sadler is going to have some fun. 

That’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about since Fred Hoiberg and company got to Lincoln.

Nebraska, as long as Hoiberg is in town, will win ball games with its offense. That was the approach at Iowa State and it worked. When the right players are in place, the system works. So there isn’t much of a need to change things up. When you can score 80 a game in college basketball, lockdown defense is more of a luxury than a necessity. But that doesn’t mean Nebraska’s defense doesn’t have some interesting potential in the near future. 

In Ames, the Cyclones were better on defense in their first season under Hoiberg than they were on offense. As the offensive system took hold and that end of the floor picked up its level of play, the defense started to take a backseat. Several of the best offensive seasons coincided with some of the poorer defensive seasons.

  DefRtg Adj. DefRtg* OffRtg Adj. OffRtg*
2010 t-111th 61st t-118th 105th
2011 t-159th 89th t-44th 87th
2012 t-173rd 66th 16th 24th
2013 t-114th 123rd t-27th 8th
2014 t-109th 55th 28th 9th

*Adjusted offensive and defensive ratings from KenPom

Fred can coach defense if he needs to.

Now add Sadler to the fold, the guy tasked with running the show on that side of the court. 

"One of the things I think I can help (Hoiberg) with — and I did the year I was with him at Iowa State — is on the defensive end,” Sadler said when he was introduced at Nebraska. “He's also a guy who's going to let me help him on the defensive end. It's not like, 'Hey, come and help me,' and then stick me over in a corner. If that's the case, I wouldn't have come. He's going to let me be accountable on that end.

"I have pride in thinking I can get guys to play defense in a successful way. In a very limited amount of time, may I add, with Fred, because his practices are pretty much all offense.”

His reputation there still speaks for itself. During his first stint in Lincoln, Sadler’s teams had three top-25 defenses (by KenPom) in six years. It remains to be seen whether Nebraska can climb that high in any defensive metric with so much energy dedicated to the other end, but the tools appear there for a more-than-capable defensive unit. 

So much of that end is about effort and fundamentals. Sadler can certainly coach those up. The top defenses mix in length and athleticism. And Nebraska has plenty of that. 

The listed height for each Husker:

  • Guards: Cam Mack (6-foot-2), Jervay Green (6-foot-3), Samari Curtis (6-foot-4), Dachon Burke (6-foot-4), Jace Piatkowski (6-foot-4), Thorir Thorbjarnarson (6-foot-6), Haanif Cheatham (6-foot-6), Shamiel Stevenson (6-foot-6), Dalano Banton (6-foot-8), Matej Kavas (6-foot-8)
  • Forwards: Akol Arop (6-foot-6), Kevin Cross (6-foot-8), Yvan Ouedraogo (6-foot-9)

Is there a shot-blocker in that group? Who knows. But there is switchability, and lots of it.

Mack is a long 6-foot-2. Burke was a favorite of assistant coach Matt Abdelmassih when he was recruiting for St. John’s because of his defensive intensity; in practice last year, he guarded anyone and everyone. Cheatham and Stevenson are big enough to guard multiple spots. Ouedraogo could be the wildcard of the bunch, a freshman with the frame of a seasoned Big Ten big man.

Nebraska can play big without having traditional height at the center spot. With bigger-than-average guards, the Huskers could cross-match and cause problems for other teams. 

The 1-3-1 zone was a tool the last staff used when the opposing team started to find a rhythm or the game started to get away from the Huskers. It worked with Isaiah Roby’s shot-blocking instincts at the backend, allowing the other four guys on the court to overplay passing lanes and aggressively pressure the ball. That might not be as prevalent next season — especially if Roby is indeed out — but the Huskers will almost definitely be looking to force turnovers to open transition opportunities.

A combination of injuries and a lack of true frontcourt size in Chicago led Hoiberg to mix different coverages and go back and forth between blitzing ball-screens, switching or simply dropping. The same kind of night-to-night variance could happen in Lincoln. The personnel is in place to try and pressure the ball at all times. 

There are still a number of variables in the air before we even know what exactly this team will look like in Year 1, but defense isn’t something to forget about when evaluating their potential. 

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