Nebraska Basketball vs. Creighton Photo No. 13

Nebraska's Haanif Cheatham (22) looks to pass during the game against Creighton at CHI Health Center Omaha on Saturday, Dec. 7, 2019, in Omaha, Nebraska.

The Nebraska-Creighton rivalry is one of the most intense games in the state and after Nebraska’s victory over Creighton last year, the Bluejays were looking for revenge against the new-look Huskers. They were able to achieve that in fantastic fashion. 

Here’s four takeaways from Nebraska’s rivalry loss: 

Hostile rivalry atmosphere contributes to loss

It was clear at the exact moment Nebraska jogged onto the court that Omaha was not its town. And while it’s improper to say that the fans, who did not play, had a significant impact on the game, their presence was felt all throughout the game.

Much of the talk surrounding the game on Nebraska’s end concerned how the team would deal with a new atmosphere which not only was vocal in its support for the opposing team but also vocal in its dislike of the Huskers. Few players on the team understood what this would be like on the scale of the Nebraska-Creighton rivalry. And while junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson tried to prepare the team throughout the week, no amount of preparedness can equal a rivalry atmosphere.

“It sucked,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said about the atmosphere, quite succinctly.

Nebraska did not respond well to the pressure immediately. Hoiberg has defined this season using many words, but chief among them is the word “adversity.” And in many ways, this game will be the most mentally taxing of the year for the team.

Opening the game on a 26-4 run in the first 10 minutes was just as much indicative of Nebraska’s shellshock as it was Creighton’s quality. And while Creighton is certainly a fantastic team, Nebraska is an inexperienced one.

Second-half run due to Nebraska improvement, not Creighton apathy

With four minutes left in the first half, the game was threatening to be historically ugly as Creighton led 40-9. Hoiberg had just recently called timeouts on back-to-back defensive possessions. After the second timeout, he walked onto the court, visibly frustrated with the performance of his players. 

“We didn’t get back,” Hoiberg said about his quickfire timeouts. “We emphasize getting back and we didn’t get back on the very next possession, so I called another timeout.”

However, come the close of the first half and Nebraska began to mend the wound. There was no chance of the team coming back and they knew it. Each player knew it. This did not mean that it would be futile for Nebraska to continue to try. Nebraska eventually ended the half down 48-22, scoring more points in the final four minutes than in the 16 minutes beforehand.

Nebraska doubled its first half scoring output in the first six minutes of the second half, and generally kept pace with Creighton’s scoring. This shouldn’t be contributed to Creighton letting its foot off the pedal, as it still played its best players and played as hard as it could. The stadium, also, was still behind the team. This second-half run should be attributed to Nebraska finding its feet--making shots and tightening up on defense, also shooting well in the paint on drives from its guards.

“In the second half, we were digging ourselves out of the hole,” junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson said. “We didn’t start playing together until we were in the hole. We gotta get out the gate and throw that first punch.”

Defense an issue, defensive rebounding not the reason why

One of Nebraska’s biggest problems this season has been its rebounding. Nebraska has not finished with a positive rebound differential once this season and often times, it’s over 10. Much of the reason for these rebounding problems has been an inability to rebound defensively, instead giving it up to the opposition. This is deadly for a number of reasons, chief among them is it gives the opposition another opportunity to score.

While Creighton did out-rebound Nebraska by nine, the reason for this isn’t necessarily giving up offensive rebounds. Creighton was able to grab only seven rebounds while Nebraska’s opponents average 15.6 per game. It may be appealing to say Nebraska outperformed expectations, however that’s not the case. Creighton is a poor offensive rebounding team, ranking 246th in the nation according to kenpom.com.

The reason for this rebounding gulf is most closely related to Nebraska missing more shots than Creighton, which resulted in more defensive rebounds for Creighton.

This also relates to Nebraska’s poor defense. In the first half, Creighton shot 50 percent from the 3-point line on 16 shots, and on the whole shot 51.5 percent from the field. Exceptional ball movement led to a number of open looks for Creighton from the 3-point line and having that threat led to openings inside for easy layups.

“We’ve got a lot to fix this week, especially on the defensive end,” Hoiberg said. “When you go out and you give them the type of looks we did, we’re not giving ourselves a chance.”

Starless system shows benefits and drawbacks

Throughout the season, Nebraska has subscribed to a philosophy of starless basketball. A system where each player shared the ball and each player is allowed to take a shot if it best fits the situation. The benefits of this are if any one player is having a bad shooting night, it shouldn’t be a big problem. And, further, it should increase the confidence of every player because no one is ostracized for missing a shot. This is part of what happened to Nebraska in the second half.

The system is built to be flexible. To account for the individual ability and creativity of each player while not dooming the team if any of those players does poorly. At the same time, if nobody is making their shots, then the system falls apart because possessions can become aimless and players can be hesitant in their decision making. This is what happened to Nebraska in the first half.

As Hoiberg put it, shooting is contagious. By the same token, poor shooting is just as communicable. And what Hoiberg’s starless system has shown, and continued to show in the game against Creighton, is that these benefits and issues are just as much systemic as they are talent-based.

sports@dailynebraskan.com