That was unexpected.
After a physically draining 96-90 overtime loss in Indiana on Friday, Nebraska returned to Lincoln around 2 a.m. and had one day to prepare for Purdue, a team that entered Sunday’s contest allowing 54.8 points per game.
Purdue had held its last two opponents under 45 points and it was facing a Nebraska squad that should’ve been exhausted from an all-out effort in Bloomington less than 48 hours ago. Between that and the fact that the Boilermakers make their money on the offensive glass and dominate on defense, Sunday’s matchup couldn’t have looked worse on paper for the Huskers.
That is, until the game was played. Nebraska (5-6, 1-1 Big Ten) put together another impressive performance in front of an energetic Pinnacle Bank Arena and upset Purdue (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) 70-56 for head coach Fred Hoiberg’s first Big Ten win at Nebraska.
Here are five takeaways from a shocking victory derived from another incredible all-around effort by Nebraska.
1. Cam Mack makes history
Analyzing how and why Nebraska was able to upset Purdue starts and ends with discussing the brilliance of sophomore guard Cam Mack.
He was nothing short of incredible against the Boilermakers, as another impressive passing display was the catalyst in an 11-point, 12-assist and 10-rebound triple-double, the first triple-double in Nebraska men’s basketball history.
Mack was everywhere Sunday afternoon. He was firing no-look passes, leading transition opportunities and pumping up the PBA crowd with each basket and big play he made. The best part about Mack’s game is that he makes the jaw-dropping look routine, but he also connected on several big shots in key situations for the Huskers, especially in the first half.
After racing out to a 12-2 first-half lead, the Boilermakers went on a 12-0 run of their own over the next six minutes. Nebraska was unable to generate looks against Purdue’s stout defense, but Mack helped pick the offense back up when it needed a boost.
He finished a layup inside off of an offensive rebound to tie the game at 14, and then responded to a made Purdue 3-pointer by sophomore guard Sasha Stefanovic with one of his own on the next possession.
Mack then sparked a 12-0 Nebraska run with three assists to give the Huskers a 29-18 lead. To finish the half off, he drilled an off-balance 3-pointer on the right wing to help the Huskers secure a 34-23 halftime advantage.
Even when Purdue attempted to double-team Mack and pick him up full-court in the second half, he still generated offense with six second-half assists en route to a history-making performance.
2. This Nebraska team has already grown a lot
The way that this team has handled everything that’s gone on over the last two weeks is a huge testament to Hoiberg and his coaching staff.
Basketball teams generally don’t respond like this after getting humiliated by a rival, losing a player to an indefinite suspension and having a player transfer out of the program. The Huskers were down to eight scholarship players, but it didn’t matter.
Against Indiana on Friday night, all but one of Nebraska’s starters played more than 40 minutes for a team essentially playing a seven-man rotation until Green returns. There were many people that figured Nebraska was in for a let-down after seemingly expending all of its energy in Indiana.
The 12-2 lead Nebraska jumped out to immediately put those thoughts to rest.
Something changed at halftime of Nebraska’s loss to Creighton last weekend. Since that point, Nebraska went from a team with no chemistry playing uninspired basketball to a cohesive unit willing to fight for anything on the court. The Nebraska team of the last two games is nowhere near the Nebraska team that lost to UC RIverside and Southern Utah earlier this year.
Purdue head coach Matt Painter was even impressed with the progress that Nebraska has made over the last week, joking postgame that he wished the Nebraska team that showed up against Creighton was the same one that his Boilermakers played today.
It’s a night-and-day difference between how Nebraska looked in November versus how it looked against Indiana and Purdue, and Sunday afternoon Nebraska simply wanted the game more than the Boilermakers did.
Back-to-back impressive performances from a short-handed Husker squad have to lead to the line of thinking that Nebraska’s last two performances may be the standard, not an anomaly.
3. Hoiberg’s style can work in the Big Ten
It’s too early in conference play for absolutes, but after a frustrating beginning of the season for Nebraska it’s refreshing to see Hoiberg’s style of play starting to click with the team and work against Big Ten opponents.
This wasn’t just any team that Nebraska beat today either. Purdue is one of the best defensive teams in the country, the 10th-best team in the country according to noted college basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy.
The Boilermakers beat then-No. 5 Virginia 69-40 and had held their last two opponents to 33 combined first-half points. Nebraska had 34 points in the first half, becoming the first team to score 70 points on Purdue since Texas did it on Nov. 9.
Nebraska was able to get a below-average defensive performance from an above-average defensive team by spreading out the Boilermakers and running in transition. The Huskers had 17 fast-break points and shot 42.6% from the field, in large part due to the fact that Nebraska getting down the court quickly generated easy looks.
After the Huskers went through a first-half stretch in which they scored two points in almost 10 minutes of game time, Hoiberg adjusted his game plan and they started to get easier looks. Nebraska’s 22 assists helped in reviving the offense as well, but overall it was an impressive offensive display against a solid Big Ten team.
And while it’s impossible to predict whether Nebraska can have this kind of offensive success against every Big Ten opponent, Sunday provided a glimpse of what Nebraska can be in an ideal world under Hoiberg.
4. Nebraska freshmen step up
When it was announced that Green faced an indefinite suspension, many speculated that freshman Charlie Easley would be the player to enter the rotation after impressive performances in Nebraska’s summer exhibitions in Italy.
Easley didn’t perform in limited minutes against Indiana, but made his nine minutes of action count against Purdue. He did the little things well on Sunday afternoon: deflecting passes, boxing out 7-foot-3 junior center Matt Haarms and energizing the crowd with two made free throws.
Fellow freshman Yvan Ouedraogo and Kevin Cross also posted solid outings against a Purdue team that doesn’t give up much in the paint. Both Cross and Ouedraogo have a long way to go in becoming effective post defenders, but both performed admirably in slowing down Haarms and sophomore forward Trevion Williams.
Haarms managed 3 points on 1-8 shooting, but Williams was efficient with 18 points and 16 rebounds. It didn’t end up hurting the Huskers in the end, and Ouedraogo and Cross each chipped in on the offensive end as well.
Ouedraogo flashed some impressive post moves on his way to six points and five rebounds while Cross had seven points and seven rebounds. Overall the freshmen class had an impressive showing against Purdue, a good sign of things to come moving forward.
5. Haarms injury sinks Boilermakers
With 8:13 left in the second half, a layup by Boilermaker junior guard Nojel Eastern cut Nebraska’s lead to 52-50. The Boilermakers looked to have found their footing, and Nebraska looked to be headed for a close finish for the second consecutive game.
Only it didn’t pan out that way, and the game’s momentum flipped with 6:10 left in the second half.
Haarms fouled Easley on his way up for a defensive rebound, and Easley inadvertently undercut Haarms. The side of Haarms’ head slammed against the floor, and he remained down for a few minutes before wobbling to the locker room with the help of Purdue assistant coaches.
Painter said postgame that Haarms “didn’t appear to have his wits about him” when Painter checked up on him after the fall and said that Haarms was in the concussion protocol.
Purdue responded to losing one of its best players very poorly, as a shell-shocked Boilermakers squad lost their fight when Haarms left the game. Haarms was freeing up Purdue shooters with screens and was a disruptive force in the paint all night, and Purdue missed his presence on both ends of the floor.
Nebraska outscored Purdue 16-6 after Haarms left the game, icing the 70-56 victory with junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson sinking five free throws in the game’s final minute.
The Huskers look like a confident team right now, and there’s a different energy about them than earlier in the year—or even last week. The first two games of Big Ten play proved that Nebraska can play with anyone, a positive sign for the morale of the team as it refocuses for the meat of conference play in January.
For now though, Nebraska’s focus is on a Dec. 21 home date with North Dakota. The game tips off at 5 p.m. and will be streamed on BTN+.