Men's basketball vs. Ohio State Photo No. 10

Nebraska’s Derrick Walker (13) goes for a layup during the game against Ohio State at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Sunday, Jan. 2, 2022, in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Heading into Sunday night, the Nebraska men’s basketball team was faced with a set of unknowns.

It was unknown whether it could carry a strong offensive performance against Kennesaw State against significantly better opposition. Said opposition, Ohio State, was also coming off a weeks-long hiatus due to COVID-19.

Beyond that, it was still unknown whether this year’s Nebraska men’s basketball team could earnestly play a game against Big Ten opposition.

The verdict is, well, that the team was better than previous outings against Michigan and Auburn. The Huskers ended up losing 87-79 in overtime to the Buckeyes, nearly beating one of the top teams in the nation.

In reality, the team should’ve won this game. It was up by five with only a few possessions left. Once again, the team saw the light, only for it to be hit by an oncoming car.

Here’s takeaways from the game:

Nebraska’s offense benefits from depth contribution

With 13 minutes left in the game, Nebraska seized the ball off of a bad Buckeye pass and broke with pace down the court. Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. led the charge with sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga in support. The Huskers were down one point.

Verge hit Tominaga from the top of the arc down to the left wing. Not an awful decision, Tominaga looked open enough, but the pocket closed around him and he instead hit freshman guard Bryce McGowens at the top of the arc.

McGowens had a few options, but he decided to launch a logo 3-pointer. From beyond-the-arc, it wasn’t quite happening for Nebraska’s starters.

That being said, the team finished with a respectable 8-of-23 mark from the 3-point line. That’s not great, but not as bad as some other performances this season. This is even though the starters went 3-of-15 from beyond the arc. Instead, the 3-pointers came from the team’s depth.

Senior guard Kobe Webster and freshman guard C.J. Wilcher combined for all of Nebraska’s bench 3-pointers, and did so on excellent efficiency: 5-of-7.

This isn’t to say the starters did nothing of course. McGowens finished with 18 points, and the starters overall did well from the free-throw line, but the team’s spark came from its bench.

The efforts from the bench helped the team continue its upward trajectory offensively, and almost sealed the win.

Derrick Walker is the team’s deserving focal point

In recent weeks, Nebraska head coach Fred Hoiberg has spoken at length about how junior forward Derrick Walker would contribute to the team’s success offensively. His low-post bruising was trusted against Kennesaw State, and the forward was given a greater share of the playmaking responsibilities.

So far this season, he’s producing with the expanded role and has grown to become Nebraska’s most important player.

Walker finished with 15 points from 6-of-10 shooting on the night, the team’s second-highest scorer. Though he only finished with one assist, his vision out of the low post set up play and his gravity pulled defenders to him.

Besides McGowens, Walker was Nebraska’s highest-usage player, and made a pair of crucial second-chance layups to extend Nebraska’s lead late in the second half.

As Hoiberg noted postgame, Nebraska finished with 10 more points in the paint than Ohio State, showing, according to Hoiberg, “what we’re capable of.” 

Nebraska’s interior defense did its job, with asterisks

One of Nebraska’s most pressing concerns heading into the season was its interior defense and how a rather small lineup would deal with the elite frontcourt talent of the Big Ten.

In particular, Nebraska had to shut down junior forward EJ Liddell, kenpom.com’s current Player of the Year on the season. Liddell’s line is befitting that moniker this year. He ranks fourth for fouls drawn per 40 minutes in NCAA basketball and eighth for possessions used.

Liddell’s performances have been rather uniformly impressive this season, but the game before the hiatus, an imperious win over Wisconsin, is instructive in this case. There, Liddell went 10-of-13 from the field en route to 28 points against a notoriously stout Badgers defense.

Against Nebraska, in the first half, Liddell had three points. He ended with only 10.

The forward went 2-of-14 from the field in the game off the back of solid interior defense. Walker alternated with freshman forward Eduardo Andre to lock up the star, but keeping Liddell quiet throughout the game was a team effort.

Furthermore, the Huskers did it in clean fashion. The team’s strategy of gambling aggressively for turnovers paid off rather often and resulted in nine steals. The Buckeyes only took 14 free throws throughout the night, many of which came at the end of regulation and in overtime.

Unfortunately for the Huskers, the attention afforded to Liddell hurt them in other ways. Focusing so much on congesting interior space gave the Buckeyes license to shoot, and the Buckeyes aren’t the 10th-best 3-point shooting team in the nation for nothing.

Freshman guard Malaki Branham played the Buckeyes’ hot hand against the Huskers, going 13-of-19 from the field, with 6-of-10 of those being 3-pointers. His 35-point performance was easily a career high. 

Liddell and the team recognized the defensive look and adjusted accordingly, with the forward taking the role of facilitator and ending with five assists. 

On top of that, manpower devoted to trapping Liddell also hurt the Huskers in rebounding, where Nebraska was outclassed easily. Poor rebounding is a rather inevitable part of the team’s game given its size, and Hoiberg completely de-emphasized it against the Buckeyes, but the eight-rebound difference between the teams was another deciding factor in the game.

On the whole, Nebraska had a clear defensive gameplan and executed it exceptionally well, betting its rebounding and perimeter defense against Ohio State’s paint game. The gambit nearly paid off. 

The team just doesn’t know how to close

97%, 90.5%, 88.8%. These were Nebraska’s maximum win probabilities against Western Illinois, North Carolina State and Ohio State respectively.

The chance of none of these resulting in a win, probability wise, is .036%.

Of course, win probability doesn’t mathematically translate to pure probability so easily, but the point stands. It’s incredible that the Huskers managed to not win at least one of these games, and the Ohio State collapse is no different.

Ignoring what happened in overtime, the team was up five with 36 seconds left in the game. The team’s only concern was to make sure it didn’t give up the 3-pointer and especially a quick attempt. And, well, senior guard Jamari Wheeler found the space, and took the shot.

It’s not easy to either vindicate or blame the team. Wheeler didn’t have a ton of space, but at the same time he was one of the Buckeyes’ hot hands alongside Branham, and ended the game 6-of-8 with 16 points.

Even then, the team was still up by two with possession. Fielding a lineup where the worst free-throw shooter on the field was junior forward Lat Mayen, even he shoots it at a 75% clip usually, and last year hit 80% of his free throws, as long as the team can inbound the ball, it should be a victory.

When the ball came to Mayen, the probability that he’d missed both of his free throws, like he did, sits at 6.25% — math hates Nebraska. 

The series of events which led to the overtime astound even without the context of Nebraska’s other heartbreaks so far this season.

The product of a cruel twist of fate, Nebraska managed to lose again in epic fashion.

jasonhan@dailynebraskan.com