Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Examining Nebraska’s Post-Injury Resurgence

February 16, 2023

I’ll be perfectly honest with you: my expectations were low for Nebraska’s trip to Piscataway on Tuesday. I had that one chalked up as a loss.

I was focused firmly on the three-game home stand coming up as far as opportunities for Nebraska to steal some more wins down the stretch — with good reason.

Nebraska was 0-3 at the arena formerly known as the RAC under Fred Hoiberg heading into Tuesday’s game. Rutgers has the eighth-best home-court advantage in the country according to KenPom and was 13-2 in that building. Conversely, Nebraska won just two of its first 10 road games, one of which was against the worst team in the conference and required overtime.

Nebraska was roughly a two-touchdown underdog depending on where you looked. There was no reason to believe the Huskers would pull out a win.

But they did. 

The Huskers have now won three of their last four games, two at home and one on the road.

When Emmanuel Bandoumel went down on Jan. 21 (just 11 days after Juwan Gary suffered his own season-ending injury), Nebraska was sitting on 10 wins, matching last season’s total. Based on everything the team had shown to that point, I felt like Hoiberg had likely done enough to earn a fifth season in Lincoln — so long as the wheels didn’t completely fall off over the final 11 games of the regular season.

Early on, the wheels looked a little shaky. Starting with the Penn State game where Bandoumel suffered his knee injury early on, Nebraska lost four straight games, giving up 77.0 points per game while scoring just 61.8. Without their two Blackshirts, the defense had slipped considerably and the offense hadn’t gotten any better.

Then the Nittany Lions made their return trip to Pinnacle Bank Arena, and something changed. For the first team all Big Ten season, Nebraska cracked the 70-point threshold in a 72-63 win. The Huskers then went on to score 72, 73 and 82 in its next three, winning the last two. 

In the roster’s weakened state, Hoiberg is having to throw all kinds of things at the wall defensively, hoping something will stick. Starting with Derrick Walker’s return to the lineup on Nov. 25 and running through Nebraska’s last game with both Gary and Bandoumel healthy, the Huskers sported the 41st-best adjusted defensive efficiency according to BartTorvik.com. Nebraska had climbed inside the top-35 nationally in overall adjusted defensive efficiency on KenPom as well.

Since losing Bandoumel, Nebraska is 145th in adjusted defensive efficiency on Torvik. The Huskers just aren’t equipped to win the same way there were at full strength.

Instead, the Huskers have found a way to make big strides on the other end of the floor to compensate. Granting the small sample size, Nebraska is 37th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency on Torvik over the past four games. Turnovers and free throws are still an issue, but Nebraska shot 51.4% from the field including 38.9% from 3 during those four games.

The biggest reason for the offensive success has been the leap Keisei Tominaga has made. He totaled 98 points during those four games on incredible efficiency, topping 20 points in all four.

Tominaga’s improvement actually began to reveal itself some time ago. He’s scored in double figures in nine of his last 10 games, averaging 17.4 points on 53.8% from the field including 44.4% from 3 and 70% from the foul line (what’s up with that, Keisei?) with 10 assists and just seven turnovers during that span. He’s scoring in nearly every way possible — catch-and-shoot 3s, jumpers (3s and 2s) off the dribble, cuts to the basket, drives to the rim and even once or twice in the post. He’s now averaging 12.4 points while shooting 40.6% from 3 overall this season.

Tominaga has to be near the top of the scouting report at this point, and he got off to slow starts against both Wisconsin and Rutgers. Yet he continues to find ways to get himself going and exploit whatever way teams are choosing to defend him, and he’s scored 15 and 17 points after halftime in the last two, finishing with 22 in each.

Derrick Walker and Sam Griesel have been the rocks for this team all season, and they were both terrific against the Scarlet Knights. But what pushed Nebraska over the top and allowed it to secure arguably its best win of the season is C.J. Wilcher finally catching fire. Hoiberg gave him the start in his return to his home state and he delivered with 17 points in including a career-high five made 3s.

I’ve written about this before — probably multiple times — but this offense looks dramatically different if the guys brought in to space the floor are actually hitting shots. Tominaga has become much more than just a floor spacer, but he and Wilcher both knocking down 3s makes the game so much easier for Griesel and Walker inside, and the result was Nebraska scoring 82 points on the team ranked second in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency according to KenPom.

Hoiberg completely changed his approach with his program this offseason, shifting the focus to defense and hustle over run-and-gun offense, to somewhat promising results (including wins at Creighton and at home against Iowa and no bad losses). Now, because of the injuries, he’s had to adjust on the fly, and the result has been three wins in the last four games. He and his staff have done a heck of a job with this team, and it seems like a forgone conclusion at this point that he’ll be back next season as a result.

Nebraska is sitting at 6-10 in Big Ten play with four games remaining against teams Nebraska has already faced. The Huskers are only one game back in the loss column of 11th-place Penn State, and the 10th-place Badgers only have one more conference win at this point. 

This season once looked to be headed straight for a ditch, but Hoiberg has gotten this thing back on the road as Tominaga has breathed some life into the team and fan base alike. Three big opportunities at home await before Nebraska closes out the regular season in Iowa City, though KenPom only favors Nebraska in one of them (the Minnesota game).

I’m not expecting more than one win out of the last four, but I also didn’t think the Huskers had much of a chance in Piscataway, and the Huskers certainly proved me wrong.

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