As stated many times before, this season was never about the wins and losses. Its only importance was with regards to if Hoiberg’s scheme and culture could succeed in the Big Ten. For some Nebraska fans, the victory over Purdue was seen as the possible high point of the season, one of the only feasible victories in the Big Ten that Nebraska could fight for.
A few weeks later, and the Hoiberg era has its real resume-win. The kind of win that a coach can point to and say, “There, that’s what I did with a roster constructed in little more than a month.” And it’s a win players can feel proud of in their ice baths and showers after the game. Here’s four takeaways from Nebraska’s victory over Iowa.
Nebraska plays its Platonic ideal
If Nebraska’s scheme develops ideally, in a few years, it may look like Iowa now. Iowa’s adjusted tempo (a simple statistic measuring number of possessions over 40 minutes) is ranked fourth in the Big Ten, only behind Purdue, Michigan State and the fastest team in the conference, Nebraska.
Iowa, however, has an offensive efficiency Nebraska doesn’t. In fact, Iowa has the third most efficient offense in college basketball according to kenpom.com. Kenpom’s metric for measuring efficiency is also based over 100 possessions, and in doing so Iowa’s relative offense-oriented style doesn’t inflate its offensive efficiency. Junior forward Luke Garza has the highest box plus-minus in the Big Ten and is one of the only players averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds in NCAA basketball.
All of this meant Nebraska didn’t hope for much entering Tuesday’s match against Iowa. There was one small interesting fact in that Nebraska performs significantly better against faster-paced offensive teams than it does against slower ones. This can be seen in the shock victory over Purdue. Purdue is one of the only Big Ten teams faster than Iowa. The rationale for this is if a team is taking more shots and acting on more possessions, that team will also miss more shots, and as a result give Nebraska more chances in early offense and transition—its greatest strength.
Thor brings the thunder
Junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson’s season started out efficiently. He saw limited bench minutes as one of the off-ball guards in Hoiberg’s system. As the only player to register minutes for former head coach Tim Miles’ last team, it was mildly surprising to see him stay and even more surprising to see him not start.
Thorbjarnarson, since then, has started a string of games and generally proved his value every time, and Tuesday may have been his best performance for the Huskers.
Thorbjarnarson’s greatest improvement this year has come from the 3-point line. Last season, Thorbjarnarson shot 17.4 percent from the 3-point line, and that has improved significantly to 46.2 percent so far this season.
On Tuesday, Thorbjarnarson shot 3-6 from the 3-point line, including two over the course of a minute late in the second half. These 3-pointers in particular show what the guard from Iceland can do, draining shots confidently and quickly.
On top of that, Thorbjarnarson showed a variety of backdoor cuts and a fantastic array of off-ball feints to free space for himself both in the paint and beyond the arc. Thorbjarnarson is best as a stand-still shooter, but his off-ball movement hadn’t quite developed to where he could find his shot consistently. That seems to have changed, though, in recent games, with his offense having significantly improved in this regard.
Charlie Easley shows flashes of value in limited role
A special moment came nine minutes into the second half when sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp, driving into the lane, lost the ball. Freshman guard Charlie Easley dove, grabbing the ball and fending off the dive of a player eight inches taller than him, senior forward Ryan Kriener. Easley then tossed the ball out to freshman forward Kevin Cross to complete the play. Then, just a few moments later, Easley dove for a rebound off of a blocked shot and called a timeout, keeping Iowa at 53 points, which they stayed at for an extended period in the game.
Another moment for Easley came when he took the charge of another Iowa player, helping to stunt the Hawkeyes’ momentum late in the first half.
Easley has progressively seen a greater share of minutes as the season has gone on, primarily for his ability to shoot and create space for himself off the ball. These values didn’t show up in his role against Iowa (Easley shot 0-3 from the field), but another valuable asset was shown: grit and a desire to win. These plays are evidence of this. Easley’s offensive woes mean that any further role will be limited until he can confidently threaten teams with his shot. He was advertised as a shooter, and therefore this development isn’t unexpected, and he may be a starter in years to come.
Nebraska’s defense plays into Iowa’s impulses
Iowa likes to shoot the 3-pointer. This season, 37 percent of its shots are from behind the arc. This is one of the highest in the Big Ten. Nebraska eclipses it, though, with 40 percent of its shots coming from the 3-point line. One of the biggest differences, what makes Iowa the third-best offense in the nation and Nebraska the 145th-best, is the completion rate of those 3-pointers. Iowa is shooting 38 percent on its 3-pointers and Nebraska shoots 33.1 percent.
However, Iowa came out cold in the game, and Nebraska schemed to take advantage of this. It may not be intentional, as coach Doc Sadler is a famous practitioner of the no post-entry defense, but as Iowa started out cold from the 3-point line (only making two of its first 18), Nebraska kept giving them open or semi-open 3-point shots to bait the struggling team.
Iowa, after being thoroughly frustrated by its performance from the 3-point line, then decided to try and open up its offensive game in the post. This helped Iowa go on a run which closed the gap to within three points. It was only a disjointed Iowa defense which let Nebraska secure the first half by seven points, ending it with two 3-pointers.
The second half continued with some of Iowa’s momentum, but clutch shooting from Nebraska helped to keep the Hawkeyes at arm’s length. There was one moment where Iowa overtook Nebraska, but a timeout from head coach Fred Hoiberg and a well-worked set afterwards helped to further disenfranchise Iowa’s offense. Clutch shooting, afterwards, secured the game for the Huskers, and may have secured good feelings for the Huskers going forward.