Not Much Being Taken Away by the Nebraska Defense Right Now
Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Not Much Being Taken Away by the Nebraska Defense Right Now

December 12, 2019

The Milwaukee Bucks did a new thing when transitioning from former head coach Jason Kidd to Mike Budenholzer: they started giving up a bunch of 3s. In terms of the percentage of shots against the Bucks’ defense, opponents were hoisting nearly 39% of all shots from beyond the arc, the highest mark in the NBA in 2018. A passive approach that featured drop coverage from the screen defender on the pick-and-roll and an emphasis on protecting the rim, it was a departure from the style of play a year prior when the Bucks allowed the ninth-lowest percentage of 3s.

Opponent’s shot-making only got a slight bump, going from 35.5% in 2017-18 to 36.1% the following year.

Now, Milwaukee has an overabundance of length and one of the most physically-unique players the league has ever seen in Giannis Antetokounmpo, so the Buck way is a fairly difficult model to replicate. But, as basketball has sprinted into the era of the 3-ball, defenses have been built around trying to prevent as much room on the perimeter as possible; the Bucks’ approach flew in the face of that and it worked. They ranked first in defensive efficiency in Bud’s first season at the helm.

It all worked because they got really good at taking the other efficiency away from teams. No one in the league was better at limiting paint shots and no one held opponents to a lower shooting percentage within 10 feet of the basket. Only one team blocked more shots than Milwaukee.

Committing to protecting the paint, and actually. . . you know. . . accomplishing it, made the math work.

Nebraska is dabbling with the drop in recent weeks when the big is involved in pick-and-roll action, and as rebounding continues to be an issue moving forward, it may be something we should see a little more of. The Huskers’ perimeter coverage could absolutely be described as passive through nine games.

Especially against Creighton. There was an awful lot of room afforded to shooters behind the arc. The Jays got in a rhythm early and buried Nebraska. George Mason did the same thing in the Cayman Islands. Creighton hit 13-of-30 from distance. Four of the last six outings have featured at least 27 triples jacked by the opposition.

There are several Big Ten teams giving up a larger percentage of opponent shots from 3 than Nebraska, but the Huskers are trending in the wrong direction (38% of looks in the last five games) and they currently don’t have the necessary rim protection to hedge against it.


Only Minnesota gives up a higher percentage of opponent shots at the rim than Nebraska. And the Gophers do it by design; they block more shots at the rim than any other team in the Big Ten. Nebraska doesn’t have a rim protector, and its defense isn’t designed to funnel people inside, the Huskers are just giving up a ton of interior looks because they currently aren’t very good at forcing opponents to take the shots they want them to take.

Case in point: if you’re playing the 3-point line and trying to keep teams off the free throw line, you want them shooting long, 2-point jumpshots. Any non-paint two, really. The percentages get so low outside the paint that, mathematically speaking, a shooter is better off dribbling back to the 3-point line and taking a contested 3 than take a mid-range jump shot.

Nebraska is 11th in the Big Ten at forcing non-paint 2s. And teams are shooting the hell out of that shot against the Huskers, too; no other Big Ten squad allows a higher percentage on those 2s than Nebraska’s 39%. (There might be a little luck to that. We’ll see.)

The defensive plan right now is to force turnovers and run, or grab rebounds and run, or grab the ball out of the basket and run. Doc Sadler was brought back to build a complementary defense to Fred Hoiberg’s up-tempo offense, but with this pieced-together roster, Nebraska just looks like it’s trying to grab and go regardless of where it’s grabbing from. Maybe a little bit of indifference on that end. That’s the way the Creighton game opened; Nebraska looked impatient, but it also looked disinterested on defense.

Nebraska’s transition splits on offense have already taken a slight dip as teams have scouted and prepped a defense to keep them out of the paint on the break and stop that initial push to force them into a halfcourt set. In non-transition situations, Nebraska has posted a 42.5% effective field goal percentage after a rebound and a 48.3% eFG after an opponent score. Neither is particularly great.

Yes, Nebraska is going through something of a shooting valley right now, but the 4-5 record has a lot to do with the play at the other end of the floor, too. If the Huskers aren’t outscoring teams, they have to try and prevent scoring at the other end.

Currently, there isn’t enough preventing of anything happening on the defensive side. They’re not funneling teams into non-paint 2s the way so many Tim Miles units did, they’re not protecting the paint, with the highest percentages there in years, and they’re now starting to leak on the outside.

Something has to get taken away.

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