Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Numbers, Offensive Wrinkles From Nebraska’s New Starting Five

February 18, 2020

Over the last two games, Fred Hoiberg has experimented with his first five. Born out of necessity against Maryland—starting off guard Dachon Burke was out with the flu and wing Haanif Cheatham was dealing with a calf issue, even though he played—but maybe not really, because the biggest move was swapping a pair of freshman forwards.

Kevin Cross displaced Yvan Ouedraogo in the starting five. Both players have essentially been a net negative on the floor this season; Ouedraogo started the first 23 games and has a defensive rating (points per 100 possessions) of 104.8 on the season and an offensive rating of 88.7, the lowest of any player on the team. Cross has an identical defensive rating, and has only been one point better per 100 possessions as an offensive player.

But Ouedraogo, at this point in his development, is completely dependent on other people to create offense for himself whereas Cross has a bit more variance to his game.

He can shoot the 3-ball, handle a bit on the periphery, and looks pretty comfortable grabbing a rebound and taking off on his own in transition. There’s a little Julius Randle vibe to him when he tries to take his man off the dribble, a little “bull in a china shop,” but he’s at least not shy about shooting from anywhere on the floor.

Nebraska’s offensive output this season, if you can believe this, is nearly a full 10 points worse per-100 than the 2018-19 Nebraska offense was. That Nebraska team posted an offensive rating of 106.5 (tied for 110th nationally); this team is at 97.0 (tied for 277th). It’s being outscored by 6.7 points per-100, whereas the 2018-19 Huskers actually had a positive 6.8 net rating.

All that to say: the defense bleeds points and the offense hasn’t been able to keep pace. Those who have watched Hoiberg’s maiden voyage closely this season didn’t need a math lecture to know that, but the numbers there are interesting when you compare them to what the experimental starting five has produced these last two games.

What we’re working with is a very small sample size, let’s just get that out of the way first—56 offensive possessions and 57 defensive possessions—but the per-100 numbers have actually been worse on the whole.

  MD and WIS Only MD Only WIS
Off. Rating 94.6 109.3 75.0
Def. Rating 117.5 115.2 120.8
FG% 43.8% 48.2% 36.8%
3P% 21.1% 25.0% 14.2%

Getting outscored by 22.9 points per 100 possessions while being completely ineffective with what’s supposed to be your silver bullet is grounds to toss the lineup into a garbage can, throw that garbage can in the shed and never return again. But, the eyeball test hasn’t resulted in an eyesore. At least not offensively. (Dissecting the defense is a lost cause at this point.)

Nebraska just went out and shot horribly against the Badgers—38% for the game. Thus the ghastly 75.0 offensive rating. Maybe blame a Badger defense that’s top-50 in shooting percentage against.

“I thought we came out with great energy and urgency in the first half,” Hoiberg said after. "I thought the ball was moving exceptionally well in that first half and we were getting what we wanted against a team that’s one of the top defensive teams in the country.”

Hoiberg liked the rhythm his group was building so much he actually left them out there after the first media timeout of the game.

“Even the possessions where we missed shots, they were great looks, either right around the rim or open 3s.”

The following is seven of Nebraska’s first nine possession to begin the game. (The two removed were a missed layup from Mack and a basic pick-and-pop opportunity for Cross.) Enjoy.

None of that is complicated. It’s not fancy or complex. Half the time, the Huskers were just running motion and reacting to what the defense gave them. The appeal of modern offense. Space the floor, play five out, create one-on-ones while pulling the opposing team’s rim protection out of the picture.

Nate Reuvers was a factor in the interior on defense for Wisconsin in the second half. Yet over the game’s first six minutes, he was effectively neutered as a shot-blocker. Nebraska involved Cross in just about everything outside the arc and it forced Reuvers to play out of the paint.

Cross is shooting 28% from deep on the season, so teams will be fine leaving him open out there, but Nebraska does well to get him in pick situations so he’s not just spotting up somewhere and allowing Reuvers to be the help guy.

When you combine a stretch five with four high-IQ perimeter players, good looks are probably going to be on the way. Thorbjarnarson never stops moving. Cheatham doesn’t really either. Green’s decision-making has really taken a step forward throughout the course of the season.

This may be Nebraska’s best lineup.

Thorbjarnarson slips the screen on the first action, Cheatham’s guy doesn’t want to help off and Cross’ guy isn’t in position to stop the cut. Easy two.

(Thor is arguably one of the smartest basketball players on this roster. The feel for where to go and how to get there is a joy to watch.)

On the second action, Reuvers’ instinct is to protect against the drive (and, as was previously stated, Cross firing triples is what both teams want) so Cross gets an open, in-rhythm shot from the short corner.

Next possession, again Nebraska has completely taken Reuvers away from the cup, Badger guard Brad Davison goes over the Cross screen, so Green curls to the hoop. He’s off-balance and misses the layup, but Nebraska got another good look.

In the fifth clip, Mack gets a steal and Nebraska spaces itself well in transition. Reuvers is late getting back, Cross is on the weak side of the floor and Cheatham cuts to open up Green, who draws Thor’s man from the corner and makes the extra pass. Simple, smart basketball.

Lots of movement. Correct decisions (for the most part). Good execution. Just missed shots at the end. But Nebraska isn’t shooting well in general this season, so that’s typically been the case. Hoiberg’s track record suggests the percentages will rise to more respectable levels. In the meantime, the Huskers will just be searching for what works schematically.

Everyone has to get better defensively. All nine rotation players have a season-long defensive rating at or above 103.0. Cheatham and Thorbjarnarson are the only guys amongst that bunch with a positive net rating.

Help is on the way defensively, which means this might be a lineup to watch on the offensive end going forward. Does Hoiberg stick with it?

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