The general line of thinking going into Saturday’s matchup against Indiana was the team played well against Indiana in Bloomington and arguably deserved the win. If Nebraska did so well against Indiana last time, then surely the edge at home would be able to will the Huskers to a victory, or at least another close game. This wasn’t the case, as Nebraska lost 82-74, a scoreline which hardly characterizes the slow, inevitable march to oblivion that the Huskers experienced Saturday.
Early into the game, Nebraska looked like it was going to capitalize on this narrative surrounding the matchup. Nebraska opened the game strong, leading Indiana 8-7 three minutes into the first half. Later, the Huskers rattled off an 8-0 run and forced a timeout from Indiana with Pinnacle Bank Arena rocking in the background.
Whereas the first game was defined by equal scoring between the two teams throughout the match, Saturday’s game was one of runs, or more specifically, two runs, Nebraska’s early momentum, and then Indiana the rest of the game. Nebraska threatened to keep the game close, at one point closing the gap to eight points, but a general inability to string together defensive stops in the paint in tandem with good offensive possessions spelled doom for the Huskers.
There were some positives, but most come from the first 14 minutes of the game. Sophomore guard Cam Mack was his usual dynamic self, at the half leading the team with 17 points on 5-7 from the field and 4-7 from the free-throw line. He also had nine assists throughout the game, proof of his exceptional ability as a passer.
“Cam’s a facilitator,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said. “That’s what he does, that’s what he takes pride in. I thought he was trying to get everyone else involved.”
Nebraska did well drawing free throws and completing them afterwards. Against Ohio State, Nebraska was held to a season-low five free throw attempts, but rebounded well against Indiana with 22 attempts. This is about in line with its season average of 20 free throw attempts per game. Nebraska shot those free throws relatively well, completing 68.2 percent of them compared to its average of 59 percent on the year.
Nebraska’s defense in the first 10 minutes of the game was some of its best all season. At one point, the Huskers forced a shot clock violation through a combination of physical closeouts and frantic switching. This did well to slow Indiana’s offense early, but the Hoosiers were able to adapt and generally found open looks. That being said, Indiana only shot 30.6 percent from the 3-point line, which is about in-line with Nebraska’s average opposition 3-point completion percentage of 29.2 percent is the 26th best in the nation.
Junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson continued his hot streak against Indiana. The guard has been a revelation since first being inserted into the starting lineup by Hoiberg, partly due to his 3-point shooting but also due to his off-ball movement and supreme cutting ability. Despite shooting only 1-5 from the 3-point line, Thorbjarnarson shot 4-4 in the paint, each of which came on drives or cuts to the basket.
“Thor plays very well off of Cam. He cuts well off of him. He knows when to slash, he does a great job slipping out of screens and create open shots and he’s a great cutter to the basket,” Hoiberg said. “I’m really happy for him, happy for Thor. Again, he’s really easy to cheer for because of how hard he works.”
Nebraska’s greatest flaw in Saturday’s game was its inability to finish opportunities. This has been a running theme throughout the season, with kenpom.com currently ranking the Huskers at 240th in 2-point field goal completion percentage, the Huskers generally struggle around the rim. Part of this is due to a lack of size in the post, but the general shot quality is also to blame. In half-court offensive sets (or failed early-offense sets), Nebraska generally has its wings or play initiator attempt to finish at the rim. Only six of Nebraska’s 27 layups came from its forwards. Many of these shots are drives to the rim, which are inefficient if not open.
Nebraska’s lack of size or rebounding acumen, another ever-present theme in Hoiberg’s maiden season, was brought to the forefront again as Indiana out-rebounded Nebraska 48-30. Much of the reason for Nebraska’s poor rebounding differentials is because it misses more shots than the opposition, and the opposition then grabs more defensive rebounds. However, Indiana also out-rebounded Nebraska offensively 12-8, a worrying sign for the Huskers.
While it may be appealing to point Nebraska’s struggles rebounding and finishing to a lack of effort, Hoiberg rejects this notion.
“This game had nothing to do with effort. Our guys went out and competed at a high level,” Hoiberg said. “Give those guys credit, those guys came in here and had that stretch which we just couldn’t recover from.”
This statement perhaps brings to the forefront something sobering about Nebraska’s season so far. If Hoiberg doesn’t believe the team under performed, then perhaps he is acknowledging the talent gulf that exists between his team and the competition. This was something most people knew going into the season, but it has only been reinforced since then and Saturday’s loss reinforces it further. When a roster is constructed in 30 days, it’s hard to put together a winning season.
“I talk all the time, every time I sit here with you guys after a game, I talk about how we have either a lull or we hit adversity, and you go through a five or six minute stretch, where we’re just not deep or talented enough right now to fight through those stretches,” Hoiberg said. “We certainly showed we’re capable, but the consistency needs to be better. We’re going to continue to teach and hopefully continue to learn.”