The game was decided in the first half, and that outcome didn’t change in the second.
After seven minutes of scintillating basketball, all of the worst impulses of head coach Fred Hoiberg’s tenure: bad rebounding, stagnant ball movement and heinous 3-point shooting came flooding through the Huskers in a 68-55 loss to Indiana.
First, the positives. Six-and-a-half minutes into the game, the Nebraska men’s basketball team was up 14-4 and, broadly speaking, were looking good for it.
Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. continued his hot streak with some slick passing while junior forward Derrick Walker., also on a hot hand, played well inside. Walker’s contribution in particular was significant given the forward’s opposite number, sophomore forward Trayce Jackson-Davis.
It’s hard to quantify just how fantastic Jackson-Davis has been this year so far. He currently ranks sixth in kenpom.com’s player of the year rankings and, furthermore, is one of the premier shot blockers in the country. With a block percentage of 11.6% according to kenpom.com, he is currently the 27th-best blocker in the country.
However, Jackson-Davis was largely muted for the first six-and-a-half minutes of play, taken on by the likes of Walker and freshman forward Eduardo Andre. Andre even managed to force Jackson-Davis to turn the ball over.
Then, at the 14-minute mark, the Huskers managed peak Hoiberg basketball. Off of a bad pass turnover by Indiana junior forward Miller Kopp, Verge charged down the center of the court with, on either lane, Walker and freshman guard Bryce McGowens ahead of him. It’s a three-on-two opportunity. Verge kept the ball until the perfect moment, before dumping it with a simple bounce pass to McGowens, who proceeded to finish through traffic for the and-one.
It was stylish basketball. Early on, Nebraska forced seven turnovers on the Hoosiers and had been led by the trident that led the break. Sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga started Saturday, and hit a nice jumper inside the arc after baiting his mark off his feet with a pump fake.
Unfortunately, this is where the positives end for Nebraska.
For one reason or another, perhaps down to the odd rules of basketball itself, Nebraska suddenly went cold. After scoring 14 points in the first six-and-a-half minutes of play, the Huskers only scored another eight points for the rest of the half.
Nebraska’s rate of 2.3 points per minute dropped by nearly half. For the rest of the game, it’d only score 1.4. Why did the offense stop? It’s hard to say.
For one, Nebraska has been plagued this season with bad 3-point shooting. It currently has the 327th-lowest 3-point completion percentage in the nation per kenpom.com, and this hurt it offensively as the game wore on.
Indiana possesses a fantastic defense overall. Its opponent two-point field goal completion percentage rests at 39.3%, fifth in the nation. At the same time, Indiana’s opponents shoot 3-pointers far less than average for a Division I offense. These two components combine for the 17th-best defense in college basketball.
After McGowens hit a 3-pointer three minutes into the game, the Huskers would fail to hit another for the rest of the first half. This fact was negligible as the team was succeeding, but once the Hoosiers straightened out their defense, it became glaringly obvious.
Without any 3-point shooting, the Hoosiers merely had to defend around the basket in order to stop the Huskers, and so the mechanism of the Nebraska offense stopped functioning. By the end of the half, the team was 1-of-10 from beyond-the-arc and 8-of-20 inside it.
In truth, the second half saw significant improvement for the Huskers. They went 4-of-12 from the 3-point line and 14-of-31 overall, but the slight lead the Hoosiers opened up proved insurmountable.
By the end of the game, Verge played unevenly, though he was used out of his role and asked to lead the offense more than in the last few games.
He went 6-of-13 from the field with five rebounds. The Huskers’ lack of offense led to Verge taking more control over the game, and despite hovering around 20% usage rate in prior games, it went up to 29.1% against the Hoosiers. This was more in line with his early-season, shoot-first mentality.
Being asked to shoulder so much of the offense led to poor mistakes, and Verge finished with six turnovers.
Walker also ended the game efficiently — 4-of-5 with eight points — an impressive fact given he was shadowed by Jackson-Davis for long parts of the game.
Unfortunately for the Huskers, McGowens had a tough time adjusting to the physicality of Big Ten basketball in the conference opener. He went 3-of-14 from the field and was unable to draw any fouls beyond the fast break and-one early in the game.
This latter fact is especially concerning given how reliant McGowens’ offensive production is on the line. He has the 182nd-highest free throw rate in the nation currently per kenpom.com, a significant part of his offensive rating.
Nebraska has to hope for a better 3-point outing against Michigan on Tuesday, Dec. 7, the team’s conference home opener.