Coming off a disappointing second half performance against Georgia Tech where Nebraska basketball’s uptick in 3-point shooting came crashing down to earth, Nebraska will have to do damage control against an even better road test this weekend.
Nebraska, a team susceptible to excellent guard play and ball movement, will play Creighton, led by three high-efficiency scoring guards in sophomore Marcus Zegarowski, junior Ty-Shon Alexander and junior Mitchell Ballock. This trio of guards has helped catapult Creighton to an offensive rating of 112.11, No. 29 in the nation.
Zegarowski is arguably the most impressive player on the team in terms of offensive production. Hitting 37% of his 3-pointers on 7.4 attempts per game, the young guard is a vital part of Creighton’s offense in both ball-handling and catch-and-shoot situations. He can drive to the rim and draw the foul or distribute when asked. These offensive contributions have helped give Zegarowski the best offensive box plus-minus on the team at 7.4. This score ranks him as the sixth-most impactful offensive player in the Big East. Zegarowski’s defense is a weakness, with box plus-minus ranking him below-average defensively.
Ballock is a pure shooter for Creighton. Converting 45.1% of his 3-pointers, Ballock boasts an offensive box plus-minus of 7.2, seventh-best in the Big East behind his teammate Zegarowski. Box plus-minus also ranks Ballock as an above-average defender, bringing his total box plus-minus ranking to 7.7, which falls just outside of the top 10 in the Big East.
While Creighton is an average defensive team, it’s not worse due to the contributions of sophomore forward Christian Bishop. Bishop, despite his undersized frame, leads the team in both steals and blocks per game while also grabbing 5.5 rebounds per game. His defensive box plus-minus reflects this. With a ranking of 2.2, Bishop has the highest score on the team.
Creighton does one thing very well: shoot the basketball. Kenpom.com has Creighton as the 49th-best 3-point shooting team in the country, which helps feed into Creighton’s high-powered offense.
At the same time, Creighton takes about the same distribution of 3-pointers as Nebraska, and its offensive rebounding ability is sub-par, which may help Nebraska keep up in a foot race with the Bluejays. Should Nebraska have a hot scoring night, it may be able to keep up with Creighton’s scoring as well. Both take the same distribution of 3-pointers at about 38%, and Nebraska has a higher pace factor than Creighton by a number of possessions.
Though Creighton takes about the same percentage of 3-pointers per game, it does not necessarily shoot as many. And without an ability to pressure Nebraska on the glass, Creighton cannot fashion second chance opportunities to try and challenge Nebraska’s pace.
Yet, at the same time, Creighton could come out quickly and play the game how it wants to play. In theory, Hoiberg’s high-paced offense would be uniquely situated to cutting down large deficits. This, however, has not exactly been the case. There has been no game in which Nebraska was down by more than 10 points and came back to win.
For Nebraska to find any success in its adventure in Omaha, a lot has to go right for it, and a lot has to go wrong for Creighton. It requires one of the better 3-point shooting teams to go cold for a night, and it requires a significant talent gulf to be bridged for just long enough that some small advantages Nebraska has can be exploited. Nebraska is the faster team and may be able to force the issue of the game early-on rather than later. Nebraska is also entering a hostile environment and is in the midst of a difficult road trip.
Finally, though this game may end up being a resounding victory for Creighton, it’s nearly unimportant unless it’s the other way around. Creighton is the overwhelming favorite, and Nebraska wasn’t expected to be much this year. In the rare case that Nebraska wins, victory should not be considered vindication of Hoiberg’s hire but rather a fond, stupefying memory in a season of development and upheaval.