Nebraska’s lack of size is well documented at this point in the season. The Huskers have a 6-foot-9 17-year-old starting at center with a 6-foot-6 freshman backing him up, and a bunch of guards and wings around them.
The defensive glass has been a big problem all season long, as expected. The mismatch in size the Huskers have to deal with night in and night out in the Big Ten is an even bigger problem, however, because it can compromise the entire defense.
The Big Ten features some of the best big men in the country such as Iowa’s Luka Garza, Minnesota’s Daniel Oturu, Michigan State’s Xavier Tillman, Maryland’s Jalen Smith, Ohio State’s Kaleb Wesson, Indiana’s Trayce Jackson-Davis, Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn, Michigan’s Jon Teske, Penn State’s Mike Watkins, Rutgers’ Myles Johnson, Wisconsin’s Nate Reuvers, Purdue’s Trevion Williams and Matt Haarms and even Northwestern’s Ryan Young. If you’re keeping track, I just listed every team in the Big Ten — except for Nebraska.
Asking Yvan Ouedraogo and Kevin Cross Jr. to deal with those guys one-on-one would be a bit much for the true freshmen, and Fred Hoiberg isn’t doing that. Doc Sadler’s schemed up plenty of help for Nebraska’s young frontcourt, often dropping defenders into help to discourage post entry passes and digging in with perimeter defenders when teams do get the ball into the post. The downside of this strategy is it creates openings elsewhere on the floor when the big is able to make the correct pass out of the double-team and the perimeter player quickly swings the ball if the help rotates.
We’ve seen this strategy work. Against the Hawkeyes, Nebraska doubled (and sometimes tripled) the heck out of Garza, the 6-foot-11, 255-pound Big Ten Player of the Year front-runner. Garza still had 16 points, but he had to earn every one of them. Meanwhile, with the paint mostly closed down, the Hawkeyes fired away from the perimeter all night long. Iowa launched 33 3-pointers and hit just four of them for a season-low 12.1%.
Part of that was luck — Iowa’s best 3-point shooter, CJ Frederick, didn’t play while Joe Wieskamp (39.4%) went 1-of-10 — and part of that was good defensive execution in terms of who was left somewhat open — Joe Toussaint (21.7%), Bakari Evelyn (30.8%) and Connor McCaffery (32.1%) shot a combined 3-of-15 with all three makes coming from McCaffery. Garza and frontcourt partner Ryan Kriener (both over 38% this season), were a combined 0-of-7, so that helped too.
That Iowa game was Nebraska’s fourth straight conference game with fewer than seven made 3s. Indiana, Purdue, Rutgers and Iowa were a combined 20-of-108 (18.5%). However, whether it’s simply worse luck or whether teams are starting to figure Nebraska’s defense out, that has flipped in the other direction over the last four. In Nebraska’s last four games, three opponents have hit at least 10 and the fourth, Indiana, hit eight of them (albeit on a 30.8% clip). Northwestern, Ohio State and Wisconsin combined to shoot 38-of-85 (44.7%) from 3.
That includes a school-record 18 made 3s for the Badgers in Tuesday’s loss in Madison.
Hoiberg highlighted Wisconsin’s ability to post up both its bigs and its guards when he previewed the game on Monday, and Nebraska deployed a similar defense to what we saw against Iowa — first discouraging and then pestering any post touches. Unfortunately for Nebraska, Wisconsin hit the shots that Iowa missed.
Heading into that game, Wisconsin was struggling from deep. On the season, the Badgers were shooting 32.5%, but that had dropped down to 30.3% in Big Ten games. That being said, the Badgers have been much, much better at home than on the the road this season. They were shooting 38.8% at the Kohl Center, though they were only at 33.9% when you exclude the nonconference home games.
Regardless, Wisconsin came out both firing and hitting, and while some of that was a result of Nebraska doubling the post, I also though there were far too many breakdowns on the Cornhuskers’ part.
The first 3 of the game came off a nice play the Nebraska handled poorly. It was a screen-the-screener action as Brad Davison set a screen for Nate Reuvers to circle over to the block. Davison’s man, Dachon Burke Jr., sagged off to provide help in the paint in case Wisconsin threw there the post entry. Meanwhile, another Hawkeye set a down-screen for Davison to pop to the top of the key. Burke was focusing on Ruevers and didn’t call out the screen for Haanif Cheatham who got stuck on the screen and Davison popped free for a wide open look.
Wisconsin's second 3 was another open look. The Badgers ran a dribble hand-off to point guard D’Mitrik Trice, and Cam Mack went under the screen so Trice rose up and knocked it down.
So Wisconsin opened the game with two really good looks, and suddenly they’re feeling good. A lot of the 3s in the first half were a result of Nebraska’s attention paid to the paint, with plenty of kick-outs and ball reversals to shooters with defenders closing out late. The second half, however, was mostly bad defense by Nebraska from what I saw.
The first 3 of the half was a simple drive-and-kick where Trice caught the ball on the wing and attacked Mack towards the middle of the field. Burke sagged off into the gap and Thorir Thorbjarnarson was too far on the back side to rotate, so Trice had a simple pass to Davison near the top of the key for an open look.
On the second, Thorbjarnarson ran back to the paint in transition and got caught under Ouedraogo as Davison came up the floor late and hit an open trailer 3. The third and fourth 3s were both on baseline out-of-bounds plays. On the first one, Thorbjarnarson got screened and turned his head, losing Davison who ran to the corner for the 3. On the second, Trice threw it in to Reuvers and came in for a hand-off. Once again, Mack went underneath it so Trice just shot the ball.
On the fifth 3, Wisconsin ran a pick-and-pop in semi-transition. Ouedraogo initially hedges, but then goes to drop, not realizing that Reuvers had popped instead of rolled. Reuters had all day to line up his feet and square his shoulders, and but the time Ouedraogo was closing out the ball had already left his hands.
The sixth 3 of the second half actually came off a post touch, though Nebraska could have defended it a lot beer than it did. The Badgers got the ball inside to Micah Potter and Charlie Easley dug down from the back side. Burke dropped to cover for Easley. Mack, guarding the string side wing, dropped into no-man’s land. He didn’t actively get involved with trapping the post, but he also took himself out of position to rotate on the perimeter. Potter kicked it to Trevor Anderson (originally Burke’s man) at the top of the key for the open look. If Easley was the one who was supposed to double on that play, Mack should have stayed outside ready o rotate and coverer Burke like Burke covered for Easley.
At this point, the game’s already over, but Nebraska is still giving up 3s. On the penultimate triple, Wisconsin ran a side pick-and-roll on the left wing. Not only did Cross not hedge, but he was so slow to close out that he basically screened Mack who tried to go under the screen again. Trice knocked it down.
On the final, record-setting 3, Wisconsin set a weak pin-down screen for Brevin Pritzl that didn’t even make any contact. Even so, Charlie Easley tried to go over the screen instead of chasing Pritzl around it, and by the time he found him on the other side Pritzl had already let it fly.
Because Nebraska can’t guard most teams straight up, the Huskers’ margin for error is incredibly small. Every time the Huskers made a run in the second half to cut into Wisconsin’s lead, a defensive slip-up led to an open 3. Nebraska can’t afford to have those lapses on top of giving up the looks as a result of doubling the post.
If the Huskers continue to defend like they did against Wisconsin, they’re going to continue to die by the 3.
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.