Fred Hoiberg’s fourth nonconference at Nebraska is complete, and it was the most successful one by far (clearing a very low bar, to be fair).
The early Big Ten games complicate things, but for our purposes here, we’re focusing on the nonconference games alone (until the end).
The Cornhuskers went 7-4 in the nonconference with three wins over high-major teams, no losses beyond the high-major ranks (including Memphis here) and no losses at home. That stands in stark contrast to the past there years where Nebraska posted a 14-14 record (excluding the NAIA win against Doane) including 1-9 against other high-major competition (the only win was against a bad Washington State team in a neutral site MTE). The Huskers suffered seven losses at home including four buy games and one loss to a mid-major during a home site MTE (Nevada).
This year’s team made it through the nonconference without a single bad loss, which is more than can be said for Hoiberg’s first three teams. The four losses are at St. John’s (KenPom No. 57) and against Oklahoma (No. 32), Memphis (No. 26) and Kansas State (No. 52) at neutral sites (though the the game in Kansas City was only neutral in name). There were certainly some missed opportunities within those games, but there were also some extenuating circumstances.
Three of the wins were simply taking care of business against overmatched low-majors — No. 255 Arkansas Pine Bluff, No. 295 Omaha and No. 307 Maine. The final win, Queens, was actually a higher-quality win than the first three despite the relative lack of name recognition as Queens is ranked 183rd in KenPom in its first season at the Division I level.
The Florida State (No. 150) and Boston College (No. 163) wins were important for Nebraska because they signified a step forward for the program. There are only five high-major teams ranked lower in KenPom than those two (No. 169 Georgetown, No. 197 Minnesota 197, No. 219 Oregon State, No. 241 California and No. 256 Louisville). Nebraska finished at No. 162, No. 109 and No. 140 in KenPom in the previous three seasons; the Huskers have been one of those bottom high-majors nationally for most of Hoiberg’s tenure. This year, they showed they’re not in that category anymore by beating the Seminoles and Eagles pretty handily.
The final win was the biggest — over No. 24 Creighton in Omaha. That is the crown jewel of Nebraska’s résumé to this point and the peak of the nonconference.
From a raw averages perspective, in 11 nonconference games, Nebraska averaged 69.1 points on 46% shooting (55% inside the arc, 30.3% from 3) and 63.9% from the foul line with 14.4 assists per game compared to 13.8 turnovers per game and 38.8 rebounds per game (11.5 on the offensive end). Defensively, Nebraska allowed 64.6 points per game on 41.2% shooting (52.6% on 2s, 32.6% on 3s) and 61-4% free-throw shooting, 14.7 assists per game. 13.6 turners per game and 33.5 rebounds per game (10.5 offensive).
Including the two early Big Ten losses, Nebraska currently stands at No. 89 in KenPom and the Huskers climbs as high as No. 80 prior to the Kansas State loss. Nebraska is 140th in adjusted offensive efficiency (103.9) and 59th in adjusted defensive efficiency (95.5). The Huskers are 173rd in effective field goal percentage (50.6%) and 100th in effective field goal percentage allowed (47.8%).
The Huskers have definitely been stronger on the defensive end of the floor to this point, and that was the plan when Hoiberg put this roster together. They’re above average in field goal defense and forcing turnovers (109th, 20.1% in the latter) and their strength has been defending without fouling (eighth in lowest free-throw rate against).
Nebraska’s main strengths on offense are 2-point percentage (53.3%, 76th; hat tip to Derrick Walker) and offensive rebound percentage (31.5%, 101st). The metrics are pretty ugly otherwise.
However, Nebraska has not been the same team throughout the nonconference. I’m choosing to view this team as two versions — one without Walker and one with him. The latter is significantly better than the former, and the results bear that out.
BartTorvik.com differs slightly from KenPom in some ways, but Torvik allows you to break the season up and view metrics through that lens. In the first five games (all without Walker), Nebraska ranked 148th in Torvik — 191st in adjusted offensive efficiency (99.9) and 121st in adjusted defensive efficiency (97.8), 188th in effective field goal percentage (48.9%) and 196th in effective field goal percentage allowed (50.7%).
In the eight games with Walker, Nebraska has climbed to 81st in Torvik — 153rd in offense (103.3) and 52nd in defense (93.8), 170th in effective field goal percentage (50.6%) and 100th in effective field goal percentage allowed (47.8%). The “with Walker” numbers also include the loss to Indiana when Sam Griesel didn’t play. Nebraska still has a long way to go on the offensive end of the floor, but with both Walker and Griesel in the lineup, the Huskers are a formidable team.
Through 13 games, Nebraska has six players averaging better than 9.0 points per game and minimal production beyond that.
Based on the team’s performance with and without him, Walker is clearly the team’s best player, and the numbers bear that out as he’s averaging a team-best 14.0 points per game on 66.7% shooting and 8.1 rebounds per game (3.3 offensive), and he’s second in assists at 3.0 per game. Walker has three double-doubles and has scored in double figures in every game but one.
Griesel is right behind him in terms of importance at 10.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as the team’s primary playmaker. Nebraska is 5-0 when Griesel scores in double figures.
Keisei Tominaga actually leads the team in total points scored and is averaging 11.2 points while shooting 39.7% from 3 off the bench, and I wrote about the leap he’s made recently.
Emmanuel Bandoumel has done a terrific job defensively taking on the other team’s best perimeter playmaker all season while also operating as the back-up point guard, and he’s averaged 9.9 points with seven double-digit games. However, he’s shooting 37% overall including a frigid 24.6% from 3. C.J. Wilcher (9.5 points per game) has also struggled from deep at 32.8%.
Juwan Gary is also shooting 25% from 3, but that’s not his game (and 3.4 attempts per game is probably a tad high). He’s averaging 9.4 points, 7.0 rebounds (2.2 offensive) and a team-high 1.8 steals per game. Gary is great on the offensive glass and as a cutter, and Nebraska is at its best when he’s filling that role.
The group of Wilhelm Breidenbach (4.1 points per game), Blaise Keita (2.9 points per game), Denim Dawson 1.5 points per game) and Jamarques Lawrence (1.3 points per game) are all still sorting things out.
“I feel good about this group, because I know this group is going to go out every night and play hard,” Walker said after Nebraska’s win against Queens. “I know this group is going to go out and play together, and also I know this group can compete with any team in the Big Ten and any team in the country. So I have a lot of confidence in this group. I have a lot of confidence in us going into Big Ten play.”
Nebraska is starting Big Ten play at 0-2 after the early losses to Indiana and Purdue, but the overtime game against the Boilermakers — currently ranked No.1 nationally — shows they won’t be an easy out for the league this season. To make some noise, however, Nebraska is going to have to improve offensively, and the quickest path to that is better, more consistent 3-point shooting, primarily from Bandoumel and Wilcher.
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.