There is a common theme developing when the Nebraska men’s basketball team takes a step up in competition.
Head coach Fred Hoiberg’s squad has handled McNeese State, North Dakota State, South Dakota and Doane with predictable ease, but the Huskers have struggled mightily to play a complete 40 minutes against quality opposition. Such was the case on Friday, as Nebraska dropped its second consecutive game to open its Big Ten campaign — an 80-69 decision to No. 19 Michigan.
Like previous contests against Georgia Tech, Wisconsin and Creighton, Nebraska played a competitive first half, only trailing the Wolverines 36-34 at halftime. The Huskers’ guaranteed second-half drought, which had sent them to convincing losses in those three aforementioned games, led to a 13-point Michigan advantage about halfway through the second half.
Instead of folding, Nebraska responded, whittling Michigan’s lead down to four. Unfortunately, trends that had burned the Huskers all day reared their ugly head down the stretch, and the Huskers were unable to capitalize on a golden opportunity to score a home upset victory.
Here are five takeaways from the loss:
Nebraska’s second-half offense continues to be a problem
A 30-7 second-half run ensured a Creighton romp over Nebraska a few weekends ago. On Tuesday, a 16-0 second-half Wisconsin run helped the Badgers pull away from a game that Nebraska had more than a puncher’s chance in.
Friday night’s run wasn’t as egregious, but Nebraska’s offense sleepwalked through the first 10 minutes of the second half, and it resulted in Michigan holding a 62-49 advantage with just under nine minutes remaining.
The shots that Nebraska made during that stretch were miles away from what’s considered ideal offensive execution under Hoiberg. Junior guard Trey McGowens accounted for Nebraska’s first six points of the second half, two incredibly contested 3-pointers that saved what would’ve otherwise been hapless Husker possessions.
The second such attempt made it a 43-41 game with 16:41 left to play. From there, Michigan went on a 10-0 run, which forced a Nebraska timeout. The Huskers’ ensuing offensive set consisted of about 20 seconds of aimless dribbling around the perimeter, leading to junior guard Teddy Allen hoisting up a prayer of a 3-pointer that somehow banked in.
Sophomore guard Dalano Banton, who shot 33.3% from beyond the arc this season coming into the game, had Nebraska’s next points on a much better look, drilling an open 3-pointer to cut Michigan’s lead to 56-47 with 12:40 remaining.
You’ll notice that these have all been 3-point field goals. While a well-executing Hoiberg-led offense prides itself on running in transition and getting easy looks at the rim, along with solid 3-point opportunities, the former was completely absent in the second half. Nebraska made shots early on in the second half against Michigan, but those shots were all ill-advised.
In fact, the Huskers’ first 2-point field goal of the second half came with 8:47 remaining, a step-back jumper from Banton that cut the Wolverine lead to 62-51.
“[In the] second half when things get tough, we need to have better ball movement. That was a big thing that we worked on the last two days in practice,” Hoiberg said postgame. “... I did not think offense would be an issue with our group with the practices and some of the things that happened early, but we’ve got to fix some things there’s no question.”
A lack of offensive execution in the second half is a worrying trend for Nebraska, one that Hoiberg and his staff must nip in the bud if the Huskers are to find success in conference play.
Allen’s monstrous first half set Nebraska up for success
The main reason why Nebraska was in position Friday night was due to the brilliance of Allen, who stuffed the box score in the first half.
He scored 14 of Nebraska’s first 18 points, and had an incredible run during that stretch in which he scored 10 points in two-and-a-half minutes. Allen was fouled on a 3-point attempt with 15:34 left in the first half, converting all three free throws afterwards.
After a Banton layup gave Nebraska an 11-7 lead, Allen scored on the Huskers’ three ensuing offensive possessions — two jumpers and a 3-pointer — to hand Nebraska an 18-15 advantage with 13:01 to play in the first half.
Allen cooled off a bit when he came back into the game with 10:25 remaining in the first half, scoring seven more points on just 3-of-10 shooting. He finished the first half with an impressive 21 points on 8-of-17 shooting. Allen finished with a game-high 25 points.
The Western Nebraska Community College transfer earned his nickname of “Teddy Buckets” with performances like the one he had on Friday. However, Nebraska would do well to ride the momentum of Allen’s incredible play to a more consistent offensive performance.
Michigan’s big men are as-advertised
It seems that nearly every team in the Big Ten has at least one incredibly skilled big man, and the Wolverines are no different.
Despite losing senior forward Austin Davis to a foot injury early in the season, Michigan boasts the talents of senior forward Isaiah Livers and freshman center Hunter Dickinson. Like Tuesday night’s game against Wisconsin, Hoiberg countered by starting sophomore forward Yvan Ouedraogo and junior forward Lat Mayen.
Ouedraogo and Mayen frustrated Wisconsin’s bigs for a while on Tuesday, but they had no such luck on Friday night. Both Dickinson and Livers got out to slow offensive starts, though. Livers finished with six first-half points on 2-of-6 from the field and 0-of-4 from 3-point range, and Dickinson managed four points. Dickinson’s 7-foot-1 frame caused problems in the paint early on, as he collected 10 rebounds and two blocks in the opening 20 minutes.
In the second half, both Dickinson and Livers picked it up offensively. Livers had 11 points and drilled 3-of-4 3-point attempts, while Dickinson had nine points on 3-of-4 shooting. Dickinson finished with an impressive 13-point, 15-rebound double-double. Livers finished with 17 points, the second-highest Wolverine scorer behind sophomore guard Franz Wagner, who had 20.
The performances of Dickinson and Livers should provide an area of great concern for Nebraska going forward. If Nebraska can’t handle Michigan’s big men, it surely won’t be able to handle the unique size challenges that Illinois, Iowa, Purdue or Rutgers present.
Nebraska’s bench production is non-existent in Big Ten play
In addition to Nebraska struggling to score at certain points in the second half, the Huskers are also struggling to get any sort of production from their bench.
Against Wisconsin, senior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson and freshman center Eduardo Andre accounted for all six of Nebraska’s bench points. On Friday, a 3-pointer from senior forward Trevor Lakes and an Andre first-half free throw were the extent of Nebraska’s bench production.
The Huskers’ offense has struggled greatly at times, but it can’t be all on the starters. One or two of Thorbjarnarson, Lakes, senior guard Kobe Webster and junior guard Shamiel Stevenson need to step up and provide a consistent six-to-eight points per game from the bench. While that may not seem like a meaningful-enough number, 12 or 14 points would’ve turned losses into wins in Nebraska’s first two Big Ten games.
No matter who steps up, 10 bench points in two games is unacceptable. Hoiberg needs to find a consistent sixth man to turn to when Nebraska’s offense stalls, and he needs to find one fast.
Despite the loss, the Huskers relished the opportunity to play on Christmas
Christmas Day is typically reserved for the NBA and maybe a handful of college basketball games in an ordinary year.
However, with COVID-19 protocols keeping student-athletes on campus longer and making time at home all the more rare, most Division I teams and conferences opted not to play games on the holiday. This is, all except the Big Ten, which scheduled four games in a 10-hour marathon of some of the conference’s best teams and players.
Hoiberg has had plenty of experience coaching and playing on Christmas, saying postgame that he’s played and coached twice on Dec. 25 at the NBA level. He said that his players had Friday’s game circled since the schedule was released and were looking forward to leaving Pinnacle Bank Arena with a victory.
“I do think it was a good decision to come out here and play the game, obviously we would’ve loved to have a different outcome,” Hoiberg said. “Our guys were excited about this one. They were excited when they saw it on the schedule… I thought it was a good experience for our guys to get the opportunity to [play on Christmas].”