Nebraska basketball had every reason to not show up tonight in its conference-opening game on the road against Indiana.
Over the course of the last week, the Huskers saw freshman guard Samari Curtis transfer out of the program, got embarrassed in a 19-point defeat at the hands of rival Creighton and had junior guard Jervay Green suspended indefinitely. The Huskers entered tonight’s game in Bloomington with eight scholarship players.
Nebraska had every reason to let the Hoosiers walk all over them, but it didn’t.
Fred Hoiberg’s squad gave its best effort of the season in a gutsy performance from start to finish, but ultimately fell to the Hoosiers in overtime, 96-90. And while a loss is a loss, Hoiberg has to feel good about how hard his team played in the Huskers’ first Big Ten road test.
And while several players stepped up to the plate when Nebraska needed it, some recurring problems came back to hurt the Huskers when it needed it the most. Here are five takeaways from a classic Big Ten battle.
1. Dachon Burke Jr. hits big shots again
On Nov. 27 in the Cayman Islands, junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. hit two key 3-pointers in the final four minutes to help Nebraska seal a 74-67 victory over South Florida, the last of which was a 25-footer in the face of a USF defender to give Nebraska a 69-63 lead with under two minutes to go.
In Nebraska’s first close game since then, Burke Jr. made two more big shots.
After two free throws by senior guard Haanif Cheatham to cut the Hoosier lead to 78-74 with 40 seconds to go, Burke Jr. helped force a turnover on the ensuing inbound by denying his man the ball and forcing an errant pass out of bounds.
Then, Burke Jr. drilled a contested, stepback 3-pointer on the left wing and was fouled in the process. He missed the free throw, but Indiana’s lead was cut to 78-77 with 36 seconds left.
After two free throws by Hoosier sophomore guard Rob Phinisee extended Indiana’s lead to 82-79 with 10 seconds left, Hoiberg called Burke Jr.’s number again on a beautifully-designed play that freed Burke Jr. on a screen from freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo. He nailed it, tying the game at 82 with one second left.
And while Burke Jr. didn’t score in overtime, he was fantastic all night with a season-high 25 points. When Nebraska needed a basket, Burke Jr. was the guy. His role as a late-game closer is established and should continue as the Huskers navigate the Big Ten.
2. Hoiberg and Doc Sadler out-coach Archie Miller
Not many would have guessed that Indiana would be the first team Nebraska played this season to look absolutely clueless in stopping Nebraska’s offense.
Hoiberg’s pace-and-space offense worked all night, and no Hoosier could stop Nebraska’s guards and wing players from getting to the basket. Indiana head coach Archie Miller made no adjustments to stop what the Husker offense was doing, and he, along with several Indiana players, expressed their frustration with how easy it was for Nebraska on Friday night.
Despite Indiana scoring 96 points, Hoiberg and assistant coach Doc Sadler’s defensive game plan worked beautifully—to an extent. Once Ouedraogo develops and the Huskers land another inside presence in the recruiting process, the brand of defense employed by Hoiberg and Sadler should be effective against Big Ten opponents.
Essentially what Nebraska did is clog the inside and force the Hoosiers to knock down outside shots. It worked too, as Indiana was 20% from 3-point range and turned the ball over 15 times.
The Hoosiers were uncomfortable, but they relied on superior interior personnel to bully the Huskers in the paint and score regardless. Tonight’s defensive effort is a start, though, and the Huskers will win games in the Big Ten if they limit offensive rebounding and second-chance point opportunities.
3. Hoosiers own the paint
But on Friday night, the Hoosiers had their way in the paint, particularly on the offensive end.
Indiana had 52 points in the paint, 26 second-chance points and 54 total rebounds. To contrast, Nebraska had 42 points in the paint, 10 second-chance points and 31 rebounds. Indiana also had 19 offensive rebounds.
One missed opportunity in particular that Hoiberg and his staff will look back on and wince at came in overtime. After Indiana missed a free throw up 85-82, the Hoosiers secured the offensive rebound. The Hoosiers took advantage of the gifted possession, as Phinisee drilled a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to give Indiana an 88-82 lead.
Hoosier freshman forward Trayce Jackson-Davis had a dominant night in the point, beating every defender he was matched up on en route to 25 points and 15 rebounds. The talented former four-star recruit was efficient as well, going 9-12 from the field.
Jackson-Davis’ frontcourt mate, junior forward Justin Smith, also posted a double-double with 16 points and 10 rebounds.
A short-handed Nebraska squad had trouble rebounding the ball all night, and while the defensive effort was strong, rebounding remains a chief concern for Fred Hoiberg’s group.
4. A different Nebraska team showed up in Bloomington
Nebraska’s effort on both ends of the floor tonight was nothing short of incredible, looking nothing like the team that dropped November games to UC Riverside and Southern Utah.
Perhaps the most important thing about Nebraska on Friday night is that it didn’t quit in the face of adversity. In a hostile road environment, Nebraska found itself down 11-2 in the opening minutes of the game. The Huskers didn’t flinch, going on a 14-2 run to quiet a raucous Assembly Hall.
In the second half, a Jackson-Davis layup extended Indiana’s lead to 71-63 with 4:19 left to play. Hoiberg immediately burned a timeout, and it looked as if the Hoosiers were about to coast to a double-digit victory. Junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson made sure the Huskers stayed afloat, scoring on back-to-back possessions to keep Nebraska within striking distance in the game’s closing minutes.
And of course, Nebraska’s performance is due to the heroic play of the starting five. Thorbjarnarson filled in well for Green, scoring a career-high 17 points in the best performance of his Husker career. Mack put on another brilliant passing display, with 15 points and 10 assists.
Cheatham had another solid night with 21 points and Ouedraogo chipped in with 9 points and 10 rebounds. Ouedraogo was the lone starter not to play more than 40 minutes, and Mack was the only one to play all 45 minutes.
Freshman forward Kevin Cross had the bench’s lone three points of the night.
For as much adversity as Nebraska faced this week, Nebraska’s starting five put on an impressive display and nearly willed the Huskers to an impressive road victory. Despite the loss, there’s reason to hope with this Nebraska team.
5. Huskers face a quick turnaround
With Green suspended and Curtis leaving, the Huskers essentially rolled with a seven-man rotation against Indiana.
And while that’s not the worst thing in the world, regrouping for Sunday’s contest against a strong Purdue team will be a tough task for a group that looked gassed in Friday’s overtime period.
It will be especially interesting to see how Ouedraogo and Thorbjarnarson recover, as Thorbjarnarson played the second-most minutes of his Nebraska career against Indiana and Ouedraogo averages 18.9 minutes per game.
Hoiberg expressed his displeasure with the Big Ten scheduling a Sunday home game after a late Friday road game, but it’s just another hurdle the Huskers will have to overcome. It doesn’t help that the Boilermakers allow 54.8 points per game, the No. 6 mark in Division I.
Nebraska will need to regroup after a dogfight of a conference opener when it hosts Purdue on Sunday. Tip-off is at 3 p.m. and the game will be on the Big Ten Network.