I’m going back almost a week for the lede to this column, but it sets up a point that will likely hold true throughout the rest of the season.
While discussing Dachon Burke Jr.’s 3-point attempt in the final seconds of Nebraska’s 62-57 loss to Northwestern on Saturday, 1620 the Zone radio host Mike’l Severe suggested that Nebraska should have gone for the quick 2 in that situation (with Nebraska trailing by three and less than 15 seconds to play) rather than going for the tie.
As Fred Hoiberg explained afterwards, the play call wasn’t necessarily designed for the 3-point look. The Huskers ran the same play against Indiana and it led to the same shot, a 3 from Burke off a crack-back action, only he got that shot off cleanly and made it. Northwestern’s Pat Spencer flew in at the last second and disrupted the shot, though it looks like he probably fouled Burke in the process.
However, the play wasn’t predetermined to go to Burke. There were other options (ball-handler getting downhill off the screen, the screener slipping, some backside action). Hoiberg put the ball in the hands of his best playmaker — Cam Mack — and let him make the decision.
So the quick 2 was an option on that play. The idea behind it is if you can get a clean lane to the basket, there probably isn’t going to be a ton of resistance at the rim for fear of a foul and a three-point play. It’s basically a free two points and puts the pressure back on the other team to make free throws if you can commit a quick foul on the in-bound.
However, you still have to make the shot, or the game is just as over as if you had gone for the 3 and missed. Most of this season, layups have been anything but automatic for Nebraska. In the Northwestern game alone, the Huskers shot just 11-of-22 on layups and dunks, and they were 0-for-6 on other shots within 8 or so feet of the rim. The Wildcats’ length really bothered the Huskers in the paint.
Looking at Nebraska’s shot distribution this season, the Huskers have embraced Hoiberg’s analytically-driven style of play pretty well. Nebraska is the only team in the Big Ten that has taken over 40% of its shots at the rim and over 40% of its shots from the 3-point line.
Nebraska is shooting above the break-even point from the perimeter by the smallest of margins at 33.6%. In six Big Ten games, the Huskers are actually at 34.5% from 3 which is second in the conference (which says something about how poorly teams are shooting this season). But at this point, I think it’s safe to say this is who Nebraska is from the arc: Thorir Thorbjarnarson is consistently good while everyone else is up-and-down with more bad games than good.
Nebraska isn’t going to win too many games from the 3-point line. That puts more importance on the other valued scoring area.
Nebraska is currently second in the Big Ten in percentage of shots at the rim at 43%. Only three teams in the league are taking more than 38% of their shots at the basket. Rutgers is first at 46% while Indiana isn’t far behind Nebraska at 41.5%. Both the Scarlet Knights and the Hoosiers take just under 30% of their shots from the outside and both teams have talented big men, two things that differentiate them from Nebraska.
The other thing that sets the Huskers apart? They’re worst in the Big Ten in converting at the rim by a good margin at 54.8%. Add in Nebraska’s free-throw issues (58.9%, 350th out of 353 teams) and the Huskers just don’t get enough easy points to win games.
The center position isn’t huge part of Nebraska’s offense, but I’ll start there anyway.
Freshman Yvan Ouedraogo is shooting 71.9% of his shots at the rim. At 6-foot-9 and 260 pounds, he’s converted just 52.2% of those looks.
For comparison’s sake, off the top of my head, three other teams have freshman bigs in their starting lineups. Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn is shooting 73% at the rim, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis is at 70.1% and Northwestern’s Ryan Young is at 64.6%. Cockburn and Jackson-Davis were both top-50 recruits while Young is a redshirt freshman, and Ouedraogo is just 17 years old, but it does show how the young Frenchman has to go.
Half of his makes at the rim are assisted as Ouedraogo has actually showed some promise as an individual creator, occasionally busting out a nice post move or even something off the dribble, but he has to convert dump-off opportunities at a higher rate. There was one point in the Ohio State game where he caught the ball on the block and took a power dribble before going up, giving the defender time to recover and block his dunk attempt. That’s happened more than once this season.
Kevin Cross, Nebraska’s other freshman big, has shown to be quicker off his feet this season and is shooting 61.1% at the rim, but he’s only 6-foot-6 and spends a lot more time away from the basket than Ouedraogo does.
Nebraska’s three starting guards — Cam Mack, Haanif Cheatham, Dachon Burke Jr. — have been the focal point of its offense and each of them has attempted 80 or more shots at the rim.
Cheatham is by far Nebraska’s best weapon around the basket as 65.6% on 90 attempts. However, 55.9% of those buckets have been assisted as he’s more of a slasher and transition player than a guy who can break down defenses off the dribble.
Mack leads the team with 91 attempts — half of his field goals — but he’s only shooting 51.6%. The dynamic point guard has the combination of speed and athleticism to explode to the rim as well as the change of speed and direction to catch defenders off-guard and create driving opportunities. He’s produced some spectacular finishes this season. However, he’s also thrown up far too many wild shots where he failed to get past his defender and ended up forcing up a tough shot over the top. Only seven of his 47 buckets at the rim have been assisted.
Burke has gotten to the rim for 80 shot attempts this season and is shooting a brutal 47.5%. There was one missed layup he had in the loss at Ohio State that Nebraska simply can’t afford for him to miss. Just nine of his 38 attempts have been assisted. When he’s not settling for step-back jumpers, he’s got the length and quickness to get to the rim almost at will, but whether it’s a lack of strength or poor body control or something else, he’s had far too many misses.
On its face, that 43% figure is really encouraging. However, watching the games at times often paints a different picture. Nebraska has taken a lot of wild shots it has little chance of converting, particularly in the halfcourt. The guards have also gotten tunnel-vision at times, driving into the paint and throwing up a shot only for a rotating shot-blocker to send it right back.
Better vision, patience and decision-making could go a long way towards improving Nebraska’s conversion rate at the rim. Take a page out of Villanova’s playbook and throw an occasional jump-stop in there to manipulate the defense and set up a play for someone else.
That being said, when the Huskers do get all the way to the rim, they have to finish. That’s the quickest path towards offensive improvement for a Nebraska offense struggling so much to find efficiency.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.