Photo Credit: John S. Peterson

Padding the Stats: Pondering the Program’s Trajectory

January 11, 2023

When Nebrasketball has a game on Tuesday, I like to reserve this space to take a second look and provide further analysis that I may not have touched on in my gamer.

Unfortunately, after Nebraska’s 76-50 home loss to Illinois, I could probably just copy/paste last week’s column after the Michigan State road loss and mostly be just fine. The details may be different, but the main points all remain true and very problematic.

Saturday’s overtime win at Minnesota looks to be fool’s gold to a certain degree, at least when it comes to offense. The Huskers put up 81 points in that game, but 14 of them came in overtime, it was against the far and away worst defense in the Big Ten and Nebraska still only shot 5-for-15 from 3.

The regulation point totals for Nebraska’s last eight games against high-major teams are as follows: 63 at Creighton, 65 at Indiana, 56 against Purdue (plus six in overtime), 56 against Kansas State in Kansas City, 66 against Iowa, 56 at Michigan State, 67 at Minnesota and 50 against Illinois. Nebraska actually won three of this games, but when your scoring average is just under 60 points per game, it leaves such a small margin for error on defense.

Nebraska has made great strides defensively this season as the players have bought into the coaching staff’s vision, but this is far from an elite defensive roster and there are certainly weak points for opponents to attack. That’s why Nebraska can’t afford mental breakdowns like this one.

Griesel switches the ball screen and contains the ball-handler just fine on his own, yet for some reason the Huskers feel the need to have three weak-side help defenders in the paint waiting. There’s just no reason for Juwan Gary to leave Terrance Shannon Jr., the best player on the floor, in this situation. This play sparked a 9-3 finish to the half that gave the Illini an 11-point lead at halftime.

Emmanuel Bandoumel said on Monday that he was looking forward to matching up with Shannon to see where he stood as a defender. Unfortunately, Shannon finished with 25 points and 11 rebounds — though only two of those points came with Bandoumel guarding him. Between foul trouble, other matchups and defensive rotation, Shannon was able to pick on almost everyone else who matched up with him.

Zooming out, though, I said before the game that Illinois was going to get up a ton of 3s, and in order for the Huskers to have a shot they needed the Illini (who was shooting at the national average on the dot heading into Tuesday despite sporting top-25 3-point rate) to have an off shooting day on the road.

Illinois missed a 3 on its first possess, and its second. The Illini missed their first five attempts in fact and went 4-for-16 overall in the first half. The Illini score 23 points on 43 possessions in the first half. Yet the Huskers’ offense was so putrid they still found themselves down by 11 at the break.

Fred Hoiberg wants this squad to be a scrappy, defensive-minded team, and the players have bought into that identity. Nebraska has managed to avoid the bad losses that had plagued the program in Hoiberg’s first three years, and that in itself is a step forward. 

But that step alone might only produce one more win the rest of the year as the home game against Minnesota on Feb. 25 is the only one in which KenPom favors Nebraska to win. Taking care of business against a bad team with a gritty defensive effort only takes you so far when every team in the Big Ten outside of the Gophers (and Nebraska) is ranked inside the top-55 nationally in KenPom.

Nebraska has to figure out something on offense or else the progress the program has made to this point will ultimately mean very little, especially considering the two guys driving most of the success (Derrick Walker and Sam Griesel) won’t be back next season, nor will Bandoumel who is setting the tone for the defense. 

This isn’t something Hoiberg can fix in season, but this team desperately needs more talent and skill. Everything is just such a slog offensively much more often than not. Opposing defenses don’t respect Nebraska’s shooters, so their men help off them, taking away the space Walker and Griesel need to operate in the paint. If defenses dig down and double and sneak up from behind on the spin moves both of Nebraska’s main playmakers often use, where do they go for offense? Who can create on his own once the defense shifts to take away plan A?

Nebraska just lost a recruiting battle to a conference foe on Monday as Baye Ndongo, a 6-foot-10 3-star forward, shoe Rutgers over Nebraska. Nebraska currently has one commit in IMG Academy post-grad wing Eli Rice whose offer list prior to choosing the Huskers wasn’t terribly impressive.

None of Nebraska’s underclassmen appear ready to take on a featured role next season band on their play to this point, which means Nebraska will likely have to turn to the transfer portal once again with seemingly little momentum on the recruiting trail at the moment. Can Hoiberg and Co. land someone Griesel’s caliber this coming offseason? I’m not sure I see another Lincoln native who will be in high demand as a transfer, so they can’t go down that same route. 

I admire the changes Hoiberg has made to his system and the things he emphasizes, and this year’s team is certainly easy to respect and root for. I’m just left wondering what the progress we’ve seen thus far actually means for the trajectory of this program in year four under Hoiberg. What will they realistically be able to accomplish this season, and will they be able to build on it next year considering what they stand to lose?

Fortunately for the Huskers, there’s still a lot of season left to play. Unfortunately, there won’t be any more gimmes, and in order to prevent the wheels from falling off they’re going to have to find some way to score points.

You can only get so far on the strength of a scrappy defense. Eventually the Huskers will have to play more complementary basketball if they want to keep adding tallies to the win column in a tough Big Ten — both this season and beyond.

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