Nebraska beat Southern Florida and took the third place trophy in the Cayman Islands Classic. There are plenty of positives to take from this performance and Nebraska has certainly improved from the blowout loss against UC Riverside. However, this doesn’t mean everything is perfect, and old problems linger as the team continues to adjust. Here’s four takeaways from the victory:
Free throw improvement
Nebraska has been startlingly bad at free throws to start this season off, regularly shooting below 50 percent from the line throughout the year. Eventually, there’s not much one can say. It’s intentionally designed to be one of the simplest parts of the game and is regarded as one of the more reliable forms of offense a team can produce.
It’s hard to shoot consistently from the 3-point line, or to hit every fadeaway jumper, but free throws should generally be easier. It’s unprecedented for a team to be both decent at 3-point shots and abhorrent at free-throws, as the two typically share a strong positive correlation. The 3-point shot has come along in recent games, so maybe it was inevitable that the free throw would follow suit.
These two things seemed to be mental roadblocks for the team, and were seen as crucial to any hope of improvement. The Huskers took the first step towards that, hitting 14 of their 19 free throws, good for 73.7 percent. This production is not ideal, but a significant step forward after early season woes.
Dachon Burke Jr. is a real force
Junior transfer guard Dachon Burke Jr. had to sit out last season due to ineligibility, but Nebraska is glad to have him now. Throughout the first four games of the season, Burke Jr. was unable to find his shooting touch, averaging 11.5 points per game on 39 percent shooting from the field and a poor 29 percent from the 3-point line.
This last game, however, Burke Jr. came to life, scoring the team’s second-highest number of points with 21 and shooting 72.7 percent from the floor. This included a clutch 3-point shot near the end of the second half which all but sealed the game.
Burke also exhibited a level of energy and passion which genuinely compels fans and teammates. Sophomore guard Cam Mack was the only player able to do this beforehand. Having this kind of energy on the court is important, it helps to bridge large deficits and extend leads. It may be prudent to stagger Burke’s and Mack’s minutes in order to take advantage of this energy as much as possible.
Haanif Cheatham can dominate a game and you wouldn’t know it
While Burke grabbed all the plaudits with his energy and deep 3-pointers, Cheatham led the team in points with 26 on 8-11 shooting and went 1-1 from the 3-point arc. Burke scored six fewer points in just as many shots, even though he made two more 3-pointers than Cheatham.
The reason why is Cheatham’s ability to both draw fouls and convert his free throws. Cheatham, so far, has struggled mightily with free throws in his time at Nebraska and his career. Despite averaging 81 percent from the line in his first season at Marquette, Cheatham’s season percentage dipped to 39 percent before the game against Southern Florida.
Shooting 9-11 from the free-throw line, good for 81 percent, is enough to have Cheatham’s drive be a preferable option even if he does get fouled, a luxury which Nebraska didn’t have earlier in the year. If Cheatham can continue this level of production from the free-throw line, it will continue to be a reliable source of offense for the team.
It’s important to note that all of Cheatham’s fouls that weren’t from the bonus were drawn inside the paint, and Cheatham’s ability to drive into the paint and draw the foul is a useful one for any player hoping to be a consistent source of offense.
Forwards need to step up
Nebraska’s size was always going to be a problem going into the season. With the arrival of 6-foot-9 285-pound freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo, the doubt was no less palpable. Many expected, however, that these fears would be momentarily allayed in non-conference play before being laid bare against more physically gifted Big Ten teams.
These estimations have not come to pass, however, as the obvious lack of size Nebraska possesses has proven to be a problem even in non-conference play. Hoiberg’s decision to play four guards and only one forward was seen as largely pragmatic due to the lack of replacement-level forwards on the roster. Only Ouedraogo and freshman forward Kevin Cross fit the bill.
It’s unfair to blame any one position for the current rebounding deficit within the team, but at the same time, taking that into account, the forwards are still not doing enough. The rebounding rates of Ouedraogo and Cross are lower than some of the guards. And this isn’t because Mack is a Westbrook-level rebounder, rather the forwards generally aren’t able to get the rebound.
The big problem is two-fold. First, the forwards (and some of the guards, for that matter) often times fail to box out players who crash the offensive glass after a 3-point shot. This leaves the rim wide open and Nebraska is susceptible to second-chance putbacks or extended possessions. Second, the reflexes aren’t quite there yet for the players. The ball will sometimes hit the players’ hands at too fast a pace for them react in time. Though this problem is very understandable, and may change with adjusting to the pace of Division I basketball, it remains a problem at this time.