Photo Credit: Eric Francis

Padding the Stats: Nebraska Looking to Bounce Back in a Brutal Big Ten

November 11, 2020

We’re just two weeks away from the scheduled start of the college basketball season. Earlier this week, the AP published its preseason poll, and although Nebraska wasn’t included (shocker, right?), half of the Huskers’ conference was.

It’s going to be that kind of year in the Big Ten once again.

The top 25 includes Iowa at No. 5, Wisconsin at No. 7, Illinois at No. 8, Michigan State at No. 13, Ohio State at No. 23, Rutgers at No. 24 and Michigan at No. 25. Indiana was fifth among others received votes as well.

The Big 12 was second among conferences with five teams in the top 25. The ACC had four teams, the Pac-12 had three and it went down from there. Heck, the Big Ten has three teams in the top nine alone.

That is the conference in which Nebraska is trying to bounce back from a 7-25 season in Fred Hoiberg’s first year running the show.

Six of the eight teams in the top 30 nationally saw at least one player voted to the preseason All-Big Ten Team as determined by a collection of conference media members.

Iowa is one of five teams that nabbed their highest-ever preseason ranking this year. Led by preseason Big Ten Player of the Year (and national player of the year frontrunner) Luka Garza alongside preseason All-Big Ten wing Joe Wieskamp, the Hawkeyes enter the season with national championship aspirations. Iowa returns all five starters and adds Jordan Bohannon and Jack Nunge back into the mix after they both missed most of last season, but it’s worth noting that the Hawkeyes went just 20-11 including 11-9 in the Big Ten last year.

In order to make the kind of leap many are expecting, the Hawkeyes are going to have to defend at least a little bit (they were 97th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency, by far the worst of any team in KenPom’s top 35).

The other team that placed two players on the preseason all-conference team was Illinois; junior guard Ayo Dosunmu and freshman center Kofi Kockburn made the cut after leading the Illini to a 21-10 (13-7 Big Ten) record. Once those two both decided to withdraw from the NBA Draft and return to school, it set the Illini up to make a run at a special season. Tough-nosed combo-guard Andres Feliz and talented sixth man Alan Griffin are big losses, but Brad Underwood enrolled a top-20 recruiting class led by 4-star guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo to add depth on the wing.

Illinois was one of the best defensive teams in the Big Ten last season, but the Illini are going to be a bit more efficient offensively — particularly from the 3-point line where they were worst-in-the-conference bad last season — in order to affirm its top-10 ranking.

Wisconsin was one of the hottest teams in the country at the end of last season, winning eight in a row to close out the season and earn a share of the Big Ten title with a 14-6 league record and a 21-10 record overall. Led by preseason All-Big Ten pick Nate Reuvers, the Badgers return everyone except for sixth man Brevin Pritzl.

However, I’m a little dubious of their lofty ranking — the Badgers shot a blistering 45.3% over that last eight-game stretch, connecting on 10.8 3s per game. In their first 23 games, the Badgers shot just 31.9%. So is Wisconsin truly one of the best shooting teams in the country, or was that simply a hot streak? They’ll have to prove that this season.

Under Tom Izzo, Michigan State will always be in the mix, and the Spartans enter the season as a top-15 team despite losing one of the best point guards in the country in Cassius Winston as well as one of the best defensive big men in Xavier Tillman. Do-it-all wing Aaron Henry represented Michigan State on the preseason team and will need to assert himself more consistently this season. The Spartans will need good health for Joshua Langford and a step forward by sophomores Rocket Watts and Malik Hall.

Had the NCAA Tournament not gotten canceled last year, Rutgers would have made the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1991. Senior guard Geo Baker made the preseason team, but I thought Ron Harper Jr. was pretty clearly their best player last season and he’s back as well. Steve Pikiell also signed four-star center Cliff Omoruyi to pair with Myles Johnson and potentially form one of the best big man rotations in the conference.

However, Rutgers’ homecourt advantage at the RAC was a huge part of the Scarlet Knights’ success last year as they were nearly unbeatable at home and decidedly mediocre on the road. With no crowds this season, will Rutgers be able to have the same kind of success?

Neither Ohio State nor Michigan had players selected for the preseason team but still cracked the top 25. Both teams lost their most important players but return a strong core otherwise and add some key newcomers.

Preseason All-Big Ten pick Trayce Jackson-Davis was the best freshman in the Big Ten last season (even thought Kockburn was voted Freshman of the Year) and returns for Indiana as Archie Miller is looking to get the Hoosiers over the hump and into the tournament for the first time since he replaced Tom Crean. Indiana lost its second- and third-leading scorers in Devonte Green and Justin Smith but returns the rest of its starters and adds the second-best recruiting class in the conference headlined by 5-star guard Khristian Lander and 4-star wing Jordan Geronimo (great name).

The other two preseason honorees are Minnesota point guard Marcus Carr and Purdue center Trevion Williams.

The Golden Gophers lost double-double machine Daniel Oturu to the NBA Draft but received reinforcements via the transfer portal. Former Drake center Liam Robbins and former Utah wing Both Gach both received waivers to play right away at Minnesota, which makes Richard Pitino’s team a lot more interesting than it would have been otherwise.

As for the Boilermakers, I’m not particularly high on their roster overall but Williams should wreak havoc on the interior with Matt Haarms gone. Matt Painter is going to need some young players to play big roles.

I expect Penn State to take a big dip after losing its best scorer, its best defender and its head coach from a team that went 21-10 last season. I don’t expect drastic improvement from Northwestern either.

So where does that leave Nebraska? Most are projecting the Huskers to finish in the conference cellar alongside the Wildcats, and that’s certainly fair after seeing what Hoiberg did in his first year after flipping the roster. That being said, I really do like the look of this roster. I think the Huskers are going to be much improved, but in this league, this season, how will that show itself in the record, especially without a full nonconference schedule to pad the win total?

Wins are going to be hard to come by once again, but even as tough as the conference looks to be I’ll be shocked if the Huskers finish anywhere close to last year’s 2-18 league record. Northwestern, Penn State, Purdue and Minnesota all have big questions to answer, and as we saw last year with Nebraska beating Iowa, no one is safe on any given night in this conference. I think Teddy Allen has a chance to make some serious noise during his junior season and at least push for honorable mention recognition. The coaches are high on Trey McGowens, Lat Mayen and Dalano Banton as well. There is talent on this team.

Nebraska is unlikely to go from two wins to a top-half finish with a tournament berth in one year, and the ongoing pandemic will create even more challenges than normal for teams to deal with this season. The goal for Nebraska should be to simply look like it belongs in what appears to be the best basketball conference in the country.

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