Nebraska men’s basketball coach Fred Hoiberg stood on the touchline with 48 seconds left in his home opener, with his night defeated. Hands on his hips, pacing back and forth, Hoiberg probably hoped that the beautiful new court at the Pinnacle Bank Arena would swallow him.
The only thing that consumed him, though, was the fact that Nebraska had lost 66-47 to UC Riverside, a team which, according to Ken Pomeroy, is the worst Nebraska will play all year.
“You can make the excuses, new faces, new players, we’re not going to do that,” Hoiberg said in the postgame press conference. “We got outplayed today.”
There’s a number of reasons why this happened, but ultimately these flaws are more symptomatic of a deeper underlying structural problem than they are the cause of that structural problem. In the end, it comes down to stage fright, a lack of experience and in the end, a basic lack of some much-needed chemistry which is only gained after months and years of unity.
This isn’t to say that the loss to UC Riverside is justifiable, but rather that it’s not totally inexplicable. Correcting some of the mistakes seen Tuesday will go a long way against Southern Utah on Saturday, Nov. 9.
UC Riverside shot 48 percent from three on 25 shots. Of those 25 shots, 23 were nearly or completely uncontested. This happened because of Nebraska’s switch-heavy defense, something which was masked in the Doane exhibition because Doane did not shoot nearly as well.
The reason why Nebraska’s defense prioritized the switch was to remove the post entry for 7-foot-1 center Callum McRae. McRae was one of the most dangerous players going into the game, and became more important when UC Riverside announced before the game that star guard Dikymbe Martin was out.
Nebraska operated on the idea that without its star guard, UC Riverside would not be able to shoot the ball quite as well, and allowing some open 3-pointers would be more valuable in the long run than giving up the post to McRae. The data didn’t support this because UC Riverside had a respectable 38% 3-point percentage, but in theory this defensive strategy could’ve worked if well executed.
It was not well executed. After seven minutes in the first half, UC Riverside realized that there was always an open man somewhere if enough passes were played and motions run through. A successful three by guard Dominick Pickett was enough to begin unraveling the Nebraska defense.
Once that three was made, Nebraska became conscious of how it was leaving players open at the 3-point line, so it choked and tried to switch things up and close down everything.
This was a bad move. UC Riverside, just by showing the threat of a 3-pointer, opened up wide spaces in the midrange and in the lane. This lead to a five field-goal flurry from UC Riverside and effectively put Nebraska into analysis-paralysis. In this case, both defending the 3-pointer and not defending the 3-pointer resulted in equally horrific results.
In essence, the manpower-heavy interior defense scheme gave way to space on the 3-point line, which then opened up space in the interior. Essentially, Hoiberg was beaten by Hoiberg. This is his exact offensive philosophy but orchestrated against him. By the time of the incredible six straight 3-pointers run by UC Riverside in the second half, Nebraska was already beaten.
The Huskers were already beaten because their offense abandoned much of the central tenants of Hoiberg’s game. First, Hoiberg is an early-offense and transition game zealot. However, Nebraska only scored 10 points in transition. Second-chance opportunities are also important as they create new possessions without giving the opposition any. But Nebraska didn’t score a second-chance point the entire game.
Ending possessions in a shot, even if it’s a bad shot, is also important for Hoiberg. Whether or not the shot actually goes in, at least the player has created the chance for points. However, 17.5% of possessions ended in a turnover, which not only gives the opposition the chance to operate early offensive schemes, but also removes the opportunity to score.
This season was never going to be defined by wins or losses but rather by the quality of play and by showing that Hoiberg’s distinctive offense could be translated into a new setting. The worst thing to show wasn’t just poor play, but rather play that is unbefitting the point of Hoiberg’s hiring. That is what Nebraska showed on Tuesday night.
Again, a lot of Nebraska’s problems aren’t quite tactical but rather systemic. However, correcting some of these tactical miscues could go a long way, such as re-evaluating the efficacy of the switch-heavy defense and getting back to the basic explosiveness which makes Hoiberg viable.
Hoiberg knew the challenges this game proposed, and many of them are the challenges he wishes to pose to opposing teams. His schemes, unfortunately, didn’t quite work. And when the confidence left the team, so did the game.
“They go hard, they really attack,” Hoiberg said. “One thing they do is that they really go to the glass.”
One thing is certain, by Saturday, Hoiberg will have significantly thought through every aspect of the team he’s put together. Whether or not Nebraska will be able to respond to this on Saturday is an early but significant test of Hoiberg’s man-management, and whether or not he will be able to spur positives out of the greatest of lows.
“I’m excited,” Hoiberg said. “I’m really excited to get out there and see what we have.”
Hoiberg will be no less excited for the future after this game. He’s a thinker, someone who appreciates new challenges.
According to the aforementioned Ken Pomeroy, Southern Utah is 2.94 points per 100 possessions better than UC Riverside. And that match will begin to form the legacy of Hoiberg’s tenure at Nebraska. It will begin to show whether or not that night against UC Riverside was an omen or an aberration. Nebraska fans will be hoping for the latter.