As assistant coach Doc Sadler eloquently posted on Twitter before Nebraska basketball’s season-opening game against UC Riverside, “Rome wasn’t built in a day.”
While it’s true that expectations are low in head coach Fred Hoiberg’s first season in Lincoln, nobody could have foreseen what took place on Tuesday night. UC Riverside, the 287th-ranked Division I team according to KenPom, stunned the Huskers in a 66-47 win.
The Fred Hoiberg era couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start, and to make matters worse, the Highlanders dominated on both ends of the floor for a majority of the contest.
Nebraska, meanwhile, got punched in the mouth by a vastly inferior opponent—and failed to respond. Here are five takeaways from Nebraska’s season-opening stinker:
Nebraska can start quick
During Monday’s media availability, Hoiberg and senior guard Haanif Cheatham stressed the importance of getting off to a fast start in the game’s opening minutes after trailing Doane 10-2 in the first five minutes of Nebraska’s exhibition last week.
The Huskers responded to Hoiberg’s challenge, posting a 14-7 lead at the under-16 timeout led by strong early showings from junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. and freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo. Pinnacle Bank Arena was buzzing, and it appeared the Huskers’ fast start would set the tone for a dominant performance.
“I thought early on we had a good burst out of the locker room,” Hoiberg said. “I thought our transition was excellent and I thought defensively we were doing a good job of disrupting them and turning them over.”
Unlike the Doane game, Nebraska failed to take command of the game after extending its lead to nine points with 11 minutes remaining in the first half. After trailing 19-10, the Highlanders fought back to take a 27-24 lead with 3:57 remaining in the game’s opening half.
UC Riverside led for the rest of the game.
Nebraska defense struggles
UC Riverside took a 32-28 lead into halftime, thanks in part to a poor defensive effort from Nebraska.
The Huskers struggled on their defensive rotations throughout the first half, and were truthfully lucky to only be down four at halftime. The Highlanders were unable to knock down several open first-half looks and committed nine first half turnovers.
After a sloppy first half on the defensive end, Nebraska failed to make any second-half adjustments. UC Riverside made the Huskers pay.
The Highlanders exposed Nebraska’s slow-rotating, lazy defense in the second half. UC Riverside shot 53% on 3-pointers in the game’s final 20 minutes, almost all of which were uncontested looks.
Sophomore guards DJ McDonald and Dragan Elkaz led the 3-point barrage, with the two combining for six made threes in the second half alone. McDonald’s threes were particularly hurtful, coming on back-to-back-to-back possessions to extend the Highlander lead to double digits.
Rebounding concerns show
With Nebraska’s roster lacking a true center, a team effort is needed on the glass all season if the Huskers want to win games. Hoiberg noted Monday that if Nebraska wanted to have success against UC Riverside, it needed to dominate the offensive and defensive glass.
The Highlanders boasted a major threat to Nebraska’s rebounding plans in 7-foot-1-inch sophomore center Callum McRae, but he ended up being the least of the Huskers’ concerns.
McRae did grab six rebounds, but junior guard George Willborn III ended up being their main rebounding threat. The 6-foot-3-inch UTSA transfer grabbed 18 total rebounds to help the Highlanders to a dominant 49-29 advantage on the glass.
Sophomore guard Cam Mack led the way for Nebraska’s rebounding efforts, collecting a total of nine. The Huskers badly needed Ouedraogo to have a good night on the boards, and he failed to deliver with three total rebounds, none of them coming on the offensive end.
A cold, cold shooting night
After shooting 53% in its exhibition contest against Doane, the Huskers couldn’t buy a bucket on Tuesday night.
Nebraska’s offense went stagnant after racing out to a 19-10 lead, shooting 34% from the field to close out the first half. The second half was even worse, as the Huskers shot 23%.
The Huskers’ free-throw shooting didn’t get any better either. Hoiberg’s message over the weekend to the team about relaxing at the line clearly didn’t go through, as the team shot a woeful 47% from the line—although it was a 2% improvement from last week’s exhibition.
Nebraska fails to respond to adversity
During their Italy tour and preseason exhibitions, the Huskers had yet to face any real adversity.
Tuesday night, the Huskers found themselves trailing in the second half against a subpar opponent, and they folded. Hoiberg’s fast-paced style was nowhere to be found as the Huskers laid down to a team picked to finish seventh in the Big West.
After McDonald’s three-straight 3-pointers, Nebraska looked lifeless, and the Highlanders had their way with the Huskers—dictating the speed of play and thoroughly pounding a Power Five opponent in front of a stunned home crowd.
“That is the thing that will ultimately tell you what kind of group you have, is when that adversity hits in a real game setting,” Hoiberg said. “Adversity hit us in a huge way tonight, and you can talk to your guys about it until you get blue in the face. It’s going to hit you every time you step out on the floor, but it’s about how you handle it and we didn’t handle it well.”
Nebraska needs to turn things around, and it will have a chance to do so on Saturday afternoon against Southern Utah. The contest tips off at 1 p.m. and will be streaming on BTN+.