Run It Back: Huskers' Talent is Better
Photo Credit: Brad Penner - USA TODAY Sports

Run It Back: Huskers’ Talent is Better, Shooting Still Lags

March 04, 2018

Before Nebraska left for New York City, I wrote about where the team stood heading into the Big Ten Tournament.

I highlighted the team’s strong defense and offensive production from the frontcourt as things the Huskers could rely on, but cautioned that a much better showing from the backcourt was necessary for Nebraska to knock off Michigan.

Nebraska’s interior defense was fairly solid overall as the Huskers held the Wolverines to 42.1 percent inside the arc, about 12 percent below their season average. However, Nebraska was much less sound on the perimeter as defensive breakdowns and miscommunication led to open 3s all game long, and Michigan knocked down 11 triples on 23 attempts (47.8 percent).

Isaiah Roby had another strong offensive game, finishing with 16 points on 4-of-9 from the field and 7-of-8 from the free-throw line, but his front court mate Isaac Copeland managed just five points on 2-of-9 shooting when the Huskers could least afford for him to disappear. Jordy Tshimanga only played four minutes and didn’t attempt a shot.

James Palmer Jr. was merely solid once again as opposed to the unstoppable force from earlier in the year. He finished with 16 points but did most of his work at the foul line (9-of-11) and only hit three of his nine field goal attempts. He also had as many turnovers as assists (two).

Nebraska’s other four guards — Glynn Watson Jr., Anton Gill, Evan Taylor and Thomas Allen — combined for 21 points on 7-of-26 shooting.

In the biggest game of the season to date, Nebraska put forth one of its worst offensive performances of the season. The Huskers shot 30.2 percent from the field (their third-worst shooting game of the year) and 21.7 percent from 3 (second-worst).

The first half was particularly brutal. Nebraska got off to a fast start, hitting four of its first five shots, but it knocked down just three shots the rest of the way. That Nebraska only found itself down 10 at halftime was a minor miracle and a testament to its ability to get to the foul line (9-of-11 in the first half). The Huskers picked it up slightly in the second half, but not enough to get back in the game.

I rewatched the first half and charted each offensive possession to see why the Huskers struggled so much. I broke shot locations down to around the rim, in-between shots and 3-pointers, and I characterized each shot attempt from those locations as either “open” or “tough” (determined by how well the shot was contested or how difficult the shot is whether contested or not).

After charting all the plays, the final tally was not pretty. 

Of the Huskers’ 30 shot attempts, I thought 13 of them were good, open looks. Only four of them went down. The Huskers went 2-for-3 around the basket on open looks (layups by Roby and Gill and a missed put-back by Watson). They hit two of their four in-between shots (the makes were a jump-hook by Copeland and a pull-up jumper by Allen; the misses were a runner by Allen and a floater by Taylor). The Huskers shot 0-of-6 on catch-and-shoot 3s.

Shooting 31 percent on the best looks your offense generated is not a good sign, especially when those good looks made up less than half your attempts. The Huskers took 17 difficult shots — and only made three of them.

Nebraska caught Michigan sleeping a bit early in the game, taking advantage of a couple of breakdowns to aid their 4-of-5 start. But after that, the Wolverines tightened up and had a help defender sliding over almost every time Nebraska attacked the rim. The Huskers took 10 shots around the basket that either came over an outstretched arm or two or just straight up got rejected. The Huskers converted one of them, a three-point play by Palmer. The Huskers also drew five fouls while attacking the basket and converted eight of those 10 freebies. 

Add in a turnover and all in all, Nebraska scored 15 points on 19 possessions around the rim. 

The Huskers took six difficult in-between shots, and only the first one went down. Watson hit a step-back jumper along the baseline during Nebraska’s quick start. Three of the misses were also step-back jumpers, one was a contested dribble-pull-up and the other was an out of control drive. Nebraska scored six points on 10 mid-range shots. 

Oddly enough, the one 3-pointer the Huskers hit was a step-back by Palmer, his only made 3 and Nebraska’s only triple of the first half. The Huskers got three points on seven shots from beyond the arc. 

Nebraska ran several different actions — pick-and-rolls, off-ball screens, dribble hand-offs, interior touches, isolations — but nothing could snap Nebraska out of its dry spell. Nebraska struggled to generate easy looks against the strong help defense of Michigan and it struggled even more to convert contested ones. 

That is how you shoot 30 percent in a game. That is how you lose by 19 in a must-win game against a top-25 opponent. And that is why it is tough to trust this Nebraska team. The highest the Huskers have ranked nationally under Tim Miles in points per game is 198th, and the best they’ve ranked in field goal percentage was 140th (both in the 2015-16 season); every other year they’ve ranked outside the top-250 in field goal percentage. 

Nebraska’s talent has seen a sharp increase this year, but the skill-level and consistency of shot-making has not, and that very well could cost the team a trip to the NCAA Tournament.

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