Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Early Big Ten Returns for Nebrasketball

January 04, 2023

Juwan Gary called Nebraska’s win against Iowa a “first step” as the Huskers head into the main portion of the Big Ten schedule.

If that’s the case, I’d call the loss to Michigan State a step backwards.

It’s not so much the loss that’s discouraging; nobody has beaten the Spartans in the Breslin Center this year. It’s the way it happened.

Nebraska scored just 56 points (and Michigan State 74), the ninth time in 15 games that the Huskers have scored 66 points or less (and fourth time with 56 or less). Nebraska has now totaled 65, 62 (in overtime), 66 and 56 points in its first four Big Ten games.

A lot of teams have struggled to score against Indiana (21st in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom) and Purdue (31st), and the Huskers had to play without Sam Griesel against the Hoosiers. 

Iowa, on the other hand, is 13th in the Big Ten and 111th nationally in defense, and the Huskers got to play that game on their own court. They won that game, but they managed to score just eight points in the last 12 minutes of the game.

Michigan State isn’t nearly as bad on defense as Iowa, but it also isn’t a top-half team in the conference. The Spartans are 50th nationally in adjusted defensive efficiency, ninth in the league (one spot behind Nebraska, who is 39th nationally). Nebraska scored just six points in the last 12 minutes of the first half and went into the locker room trailing 33-17 after shooting 27.6% from the field.

Nebraska got going a bit in the second half with 26 of its 39 second-half points coming in the paint (and 40 of its 56 overall), but it was far too little to overcome a 22-point deficit and there were still glaring areas of concern (namely, scoring anywhere outside the paint).

Derrick Walker and Sam Griesel are both very good players having terrific seasons, and they’re both capable of having a big game on any given night depending on the circumstances. However, they both do the majority of their damage in the paint, and it’s difficult to operate there if opposing defenses can load up against them and pack the paint.

Nebraska shot 2-of-16 from 3 against Michigan State and 8-of-20 from the free-throw line. The Huskers are now 331st in 3-point shooting and 336th in free-throw shooting. Nebraska doesn’t get to the line a ton (270th in free-throw rate), but missing at the rate they do when they do get there for a team with a very small margin for error makes things so much more difficult.

The first number is the more important one, however. Nebraska is shooting 29.3% from 3, the Huskers’ worst percentage since the 2014-15 season (the year before I started covering the team). In the four Big Ten games thus far, that number is even worse — 23.8%.

After a hot start to the season, Keisei Tominaga is down to 35.9% (5-of-17, 29.4% in conference), and he’s the bright spot. C.J. Wilcher, who shot 40.6% last season, is at 33.8% this year on 5.1 attempts per game (including 6-of-19, 31.6% in conference). He’s had five good shooting games all season (which means 10 bad ones). Emmanuel Bandoumel, who shot 35.2% on 6.0 attempts per game last year at SMU (and 36.4% the year before) is at 23.7% on 4.2 attempts per game (6-of-24, 25% in league).

When Fred Hoiberg put this team together and began talking about what he thought its strengths could be — positional length, toughness, effort, scrappiness on defense — I saw the vision. I had some personnel-based questions about how good the defense could truly be, but I definitely saw the potential for the Huskers to hold their own on that end. My biggest question was whether or not there was enough offensive talent to make it matter.

So far, Nebraska has lived up to Hoiberg’s hopes on the defensive end, especially at full strength. The Huskers currently sport the best adjusted defensive efficiency of the Hoiberg era, the best since — coincidentally, enough — 2014-15, which is still only good for eighth in the Big Ten. As promising as their defense has been (Nebraska is one of just four teams to hold Purdue under 70 points), they’re not good enough on that end to win games in the Big Ten based solely on that. The offense needs to provide at least a little support.

I think Walker is probably bumping up close to his ceiling as the team’s first option. I believe there’s still room for Griesel to be a little more consistently impactful than he’s been, but that has as much to do with the supporting cast around him as it does with him — which brings us back to the shooting numbers I laid out above.

Tominaga needs to start hitting against Big Ten competition, but he’s at least shown what he’s capable of this season for more than a flash here or there. Walker and Griesel aren’t suddenly going to become All-Americans. Juwan Gary is a complementary offensive player who’s at his best cutting to the rim or crashing the offensive glass. 

The surest path toward more wins lies with Wilcher and Bandoumel. Nebraska needs at least two of those three primary shooters (including Tominaga) to hit multiple 3s on a good percentage in every game if they want to win. They simply have to be who we’ve seen them be in the past in order for Nebraska to have a shot in most games moving forward, because the impact extends beyond the points they put on the board. Better perimeter shooting makes Griesel more dangerous because he has someone taking advantage of his kick-out passes, which in turn should make it more difficult to double-team him. It also likely leads to more room for Walker to work with in the middle of the floor.

Hoiberg and the Huskers have to get the offense figured out soon, because Saturday is a huge game. The Huskers are 1-3 on the road with the only win coming in Omaha against Creighton. Minnesota is dead last in both offense and defense in the Big Ten, and their overall KenPom ranking of 188th slots in below Florida State, Boston College and even Queens. Only four high-major teams rank lower.

After Minnesota, the Huskers will host Illinois (KenPom No. 28), visit Purdue (No. 7) and host Ohio State (No. 11) in their next three, and it doesn’t get any easier after that.

If Nebraska wants this season to be different, it needs to find something on offense that it can rely on, and the Huskers need to do it in this next game. The road only gets more difficult from here, and Nebraska’s already falling behind at 1-3.

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