Padding the Stats: An Exciting Time for Nebraska Basketball
Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: An Exciting Time for Nebraska Basketball

April 05, 2019

During my time in college, I was fortunate enough to cover four NCAA Tournaments. I followed Creighton in 2013 and 2014 and covered the tournament games in Omaha in 2012 and 2015. 

In fact, the 2014 tournament in San Antonio — featuring Creighton and Nebraska (we won’t speak about how that ended for both teams) — is where I first met Aaron Babcock, and that meeting ultimately led to Aaron hiring me at Hail Varsity after I finished school. 

Covering the tournament was one of the coolest things I got to do while I was in college. I very much look forward to doing that again and hope Fred Hoiberg will give me that opportunity. But Hoiberg didn’t make any promises about his timeline for contention — it’s far too early to discuss that considering he doesn’t even know what his roster will look like yet. However, I’d be surprised if Nebraska wasn’t contending for a tournament berth in the next two to three years.

In the mean time, however, even if Hoiberg doesn’t win 20-plus games right away, covering this program is looking like it will be a completely different experience than it was under Tim Miles. I fell in love with basketball by watching the Seven Seconds or Less Phoenix Suns and I learned how to cover the game by following the Doug McDermott Creighton teams. I can admire a great defensive team as much as anyone (I’m in awe of what Texas Tech has done this season), but at heart, I’m an offensive guy.

With that in mind, Nebrasketball is about to be fun again.

Moos mentioned “entertainment” as a big part of what he was looking for in his coaching search, and there’s no doubt Hoiberg can bring that based on what he did at Iowa State. He had one of the most high-powered offenses in the country while he was in Ames and plans to bring that to Lincoln as well.

“The first thing that we try to do, we try to play with great pace,” Hoiberg said during his introductory press conference. “That was one thing that we always tried to have, especially if you look back on my teams at Iowa State. Now we did that in different ways. My first year we had a point guard Diante Garrett who was really a good player and we had a couple plays that he could shoot it. So we ran a lot of pick and roll, pick-and-pop type actions. My second year we had a kid named Royce White who was a transfer from Minnesota, and we put the ball in his hands because we felt he was our advantage mismatch. We led the nation in 3-pointers that year because he could draw the defense and spread the floor out with five around the perimeter, and he would make the defense converge and make the right play. 

“So I’ve done it different ways but the one thing that is consistent is the fast-paced, exciting brand of basketball that we want to play. And again, you have to be in great shape to do that, you have to have the right personnel to do that. We’ll see how that is with this roster. I’ve watched some games; I haven’t seen a lot yet. I plan to go back and watch all the games from last year, with the addition of some of the players that are coming here in this year, which I’m really excited about. We’ll try to put the right system together, try to take advantage of their skill sets.”

Miles has gotten credit for making Nebrasketball exciting again, and he deserves that. He brought a lot of attention to the program through a combination of the success he did have and his personality. But the actual product on the floor? Not all that exciting if you’re someone who likes seeing the ball go in the basket.

I looked back at the results from Miles’ last five seasons — giving me a comparable sample size to Hoiberg’s tenure at Iowa State — to break down the scoring numbers. Miles coached in 160 games during that span and the Huskers went 82-83. The Huskers scored less than 70 points in 47.5 percent of those games with five games in the 40s. Only 23.8 percent of those games ended with Nebraska scoring 80 or more points.

Conversely, during his five seasons in Ames, Hoiberg’s teams went 115-56. The Cyclones scored 80 or more in 45 percent of those games and scored less than 70 just 20.5 percent of the time. Hoiberg’s teams scored less than 60 just eight times in five years and never scored less than 51.

I looked at three different stats to compare the two programs based on what I like to see — points per game, 3-point percentage and assists. Those are areas in which Miles’ teams really struggled. 

Miles fielded just two offenses in seven seasons that cracked the top 200 in terms of points per game with a high of 72.3. Nebraska had an average national ranking of 255.3 in scoring offense. The Huskers cracked the top 200 in 3-point percentage just two times as well with a high of 34.7, 169th nationally. Nebraska’s national average was 250.1 in 3-point shooting. As for assist totals, it was even worse. The Huskers showed improvement in that area the past two seasons with 446 and 466 assists, respectively, but those were the only two seasons in which Nebraska was in the top 200 while they finished outside the top 300 four times. Their average ranking was 260.4.

Flip over to Hoiberg’s Iowa State teams and their average ranking was inside the top 75 in all three categories. 

Iowa State ranked inside the top 50 all five seasons under Hoiberg and was inside the top 15 the last three years. In 2012-13, the Cyclones were third in the country at 79.4 points per game, then they upped that to 83.0 the next season, though that was only good enough for fifth nationally. 

Iowa State was never actually an elite shooting team by the numbers, but they were certainly far more capable than Nebraska in that area. Iowa State’s worse shooting season was 35.8 (111th in the country) in 2013-14, but that was still better than Nebraska’s best season under Miles. The Cyclones average ranking was 71.4 as the Cyclones shot between 35 and 38 percent all five seasons, a respectable range. 

Perhaps more importantly, as Hoiberg mentioned during his press conference, he’s a analytics guys and though the Cyclones were never an elite shooting team, they were in the top 30 nationally in attempts in four of his five seasons. Nebraska shot a decent number of 3s this past season under Miles too, but the difference is that while the trade-off is some occasionally rushed shots, for the most part Hoiberg emphasizes taking the right 3s within his system.

“Oh, you’ll see us play,” Hoiberg said. “Some people will look at the guy next to them and say, ‘What the hell was that shot?’ I think all five years we led the Big 12 in 3-point shooting and one year we led the nation in 3-point shooting. You know, a big thing for our team, you can play fast but you really have to drill it. Because if you don’t you’re going to be throwing that thing all over the mat. And I love shooting 3s in transition and before the defense gets set. If we can come down, run a ball screen, make a team execute pick-and-roll defense early in a possession and play off it with good spacing, we’re going to have a chance to get great looks and great shots. We’re going to look at it hard. We have a skill development program that I think we’re all very confident with and is proven to make players better and more skilled.”

Ball movement is a big part of what Hoiberg’s teams did at Iowa State as well. His first team was 74th in the country in total assists, his second was 54th, and then his last three teams were all in the top 20 including first with 663 helpers in 2013-14. Isolation basketball is not a big part of what Fred hoiberg’s teams do, and for that I am grateful.

A new era of basketball is here in Nebraska and it is set to be unlike anything we’ve seen in Lincoln for some time. For those that are partial to the offensive side of the ball — like me — this is an exciting time. Consistent tournament success is the long-term goal for Hoiberg and Nebraska, but in the short term, he’s going to make sure the fans have a little fun along the way.

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