Nebraska narrowly lost a 2OT thriller against Southern Utah on Saturday, a result which included a buzzer-beater, defensive innovation from Southern Utah and a number of missed opportunities for Nebraska.
This game was a significant step up from the home opener against UC Riverside, and some of the structural problems raised by the UC Riverside game were answered, at least in part, against the Thunderbirds.
With that in mind, here are five takeaways from the loss to Southern Utah:
Nebraska’s defense takes a step forward
One of Nebraska’s biggest problems against UC Riverside was the defense, particularly the perimeter defense. UC Riverside took 25 3-point shots against Nebraska on Tuesday, and only two of those were significantly contested. Southern Utah, however, took 23 3-point shots and half of them were heavily contested.
There’s one big reason for this: effort. Nebraska, under Hoiberg and Sadler, runs a chaotic, slightly unstructured defense which relies primarily on effort and athleticism. Nebraska has athleticism, but the effort was lacking in the season opener. In the preparation ahead of Saturday’s game, Hoiberg must’ve drilled this into the players, as they were significantly more energetic in their close-outs.
Doing this has several knock-on effects as well. Nebraska’s post defense is competent, and by forcing the players off the 3-point line, Nebraska was able to funnel Southern Utah into the post where Nebraska was more comfortable. Also, after it was demonstrated that the 3-point line wouldn’t be an easy place to score from, Southern Utah took less 3-pointers. In the first half, Southern Utah took 13 shots behind the arc, and in the second half it only took six. Compare this to the game against UC Riverside, where in the first half the Highlanders took 10 3-pointers, and then took 15 in the second.
Transitioning into the press flustered Nebraska
For the first half and a portion of the second half, Southern Utah ran a zone defense. About five minutes into the second half, however, the Thunderbirds switched to a full-court press. This helped to start Nebraska’s stagnation, which led to Southern Utah’s eventual comeback.
“That’s when we’re at our best right now, we can get it up the floor,” Hoiberg said after the game. “We fly it up there and convert before the defense gets set.”
By not letting Nebraska move up the court quickly, Southern Utah slowed down the spearhead of the Nebraska attack, and forced them into running more static half-court sets.
3-point shooting woes
Nebraska only shot 5-26 from the 3-point line against Southern Utah, good for 19.2 percent. This is down from the 6-26 which Nebraska shot against UC Riverside.
It’s also important to note that Nebraska took 26 3-pointers over 55 shots against UC Riverside, which is a 3-point frequency of 47 percent. However, against Southern Utah, Nebraska took 26 3-pointers over 73 shots, good for a 3-point frequency of 35 percent. The latter of these two numbers is consistent with Iowa State’s 3-point frequency in Hoiberg’s first year, which ended at 37 percent.
Considering that Hoiberg’s first Iowa State team shot 37 percent from the 3-point line in his first year, and Nebraska has shot 19 percent from the 3-point line so far this year, it might not be outlandish to think that Hoiberg may scale back the frequency of his team’s 3-point attempts, especially considering that the team shoots 50 percent in the paint. Each one of Nebraska’s 3-point attempts, so far, is worth .57 points, and each one of Nebraska’s shots in the paint, by comparison, is worth 1.
Free throw improvement
A running theme throughout the early part of Hoiberg’s first season has been the team’s inability to shoot free throws. In a closed-door exhibition against Wichita State, the team missed five straight free throws.
Then, in the exhibition against Doane, Nebraska shot 11-24 from the free throw line, good for only 45.8 percent. Against UC Riverside Nebraska shot 9-19 from the line, which is 47.4 percent.
In general, getting free throws is valuable if the expected value of the free throws is above that of any possession without free throws. If not, the opponent is given free reign to play hack-a-Nebraska. The expected value of any one Nebraska free throw from the UC Riverside game, for example, was .474 points. And the points per possession for Nebraska without free throws was .603. This means it would’ve been more valuable for UC Riverside to start every Nebraska possession with a foul.
Against Southern Utah, however, Nebraska shot 65.5 percent from the charity stripe, which equals .655 points per free throw. Then, taking the points per possession for Nebraska without free throws, Nebraska scored .67 points per possession. This means it still would’ve been a net benefit to foul Nebraska every possession, but it’s much closer to equal.
Cam Mack is an X-factor
There was a point in the second half where Cam Mack owned Pinnacle Bank Arena. After scoring six points, all off drives to the rim, he had taken over the game. His pick-and-roll with freshman forward Kevin Cross proved to be a nearly automatic connection, and it was his pass to Jervay Green which set up the 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.
Mack also grabbed seven rebounds, one of which was offensive, and ended the night as the third top-scorer, top assist-maker, and second-best in rebounds. He finished with a line of 13-7-11.
Mack has some problems to iron out in his game. He can’t shoot the three effectively and his free throw percentage has been inconsistent since junior college. But what Mack lacks there, he makes up for in his sheer electricity.
A good comparison for the player is Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant. Both have excellent body control, a wide array of passes and dribble-feints, and an athleticism which endears them quickly to whatever audience they’re playing in front of.
“He [Mack] had a stretch there where he was just incredible. He completely took over the game, that’s what he’s capable of doing,” Hoiberg said. “He has great speed and great instincts. To go out there in his second game at this level and to almost post a triple-double is just impressive.”