In its inaugural season under head coach Fred Hoiberg, Nebraska basketball suffered its first major setback in Big 10 play. Its opener against Indiana, while a loss, was a game taken to overtime and Nebraska played some of its best basketball of the year. Then, Nebraska’s victory over Purdue served as a kind of proof-of-concept for Hoiberg’s hire and may end up as one of Nebraska’s best victories of the season.
Nebraska was unable to find much to cheer about in its performance against Rutgers, however, losing 79-62 and never cutting the lead to within 10 in the second half.
The game started as a shoot-off with four made field goals as Nebraska kept pace with Rutgers through the first four minutes. Then, a made jumper by junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. and a 3-point shot by senior guard Haanif Cheatham gave Nebraska a five-point advantage and plenty of momentum.
This was one of the last good moments for Nebraska in the game. Rutgers flew through an 18-1 run and the game threatened to spiral out of control for the Huskers. Nebraska’s last significant run of the game came late in the first quarter, instigated by a Kevin Cross and-one which resulted in an impromptu team huddle just on the right wing. The Huskers cut the game down to four points before Cam Mack collided with forward Akwasi Yeboah, and was forced off the court.
Without its primary ball-handler, Nebraska scored only four more points in the half, while Rutgers added 11. Mack returned for the start of the second half but much of Nebraska’s fighting spirit had been tempered, especially by a strong Rutgers defensive showing and generally poor ball movement from the Huskers in half-court offensive sets.
One of the starkest contrasts of the game was the shooting quality between the two teams. Both shot 63 field goal attempts, however Nebraska attempted just about half from the 3-point line. Rutgers, by comparison, only shot 23 percent of its shots from behind the arc, instead preferring to score in the paint. This proved valuable for Rutgers, which converted on 54 percent of its field goal attempts against Nebraska’s 31.7 percent. Rutgers scored a full .265 points per possession more than Nebraska.
Nebraska, at points in the game, threatened to break out into runs. There was a moment in the second half where Rutgers, trying to seal the game through further strangling of the game’s pace, let Nebraska to within 15 points. Any relative momentum was again then neutralized by strong Rutgers’ defense and generally poor Nebraska offense.
The problem with Nebraska’s game was hardly related to effort or energy. Nebraska doubled its average offensive rebounds per game and showed stretches where it could fight back into the game. With Pinnacle Bank Arena behind it, Nebraska could’ve gained something from the game on the emotional end. It had energy but without end-product. Against a well-drilled and confident Rutgers team, Nebraska was unable to use its emotional support to great effect.
Rutgers won because it took away one of Nebraska’s greatest weapons, its tempo. Whereas Nebraska averages about 74 possessions per 40 minutes according to kenpom.com, Rutgers kept the game to only 64 possessions, and efficient scoring from the visitors meant that Nebraska had to exercise its half-court offensive sets more often than not.
Nebraska typically thrives in transition and early offense sets, and become much less efficient when forced (be it through traps or strong defense) into half-court offense. Only being able to score six fastbreak points all game was an important mark for Rutgers to hold Nebraska to.
While Nebraska’s loss was predictable, with kenpom.com predicting a 74-69 result, the manner of the loss will be concerning for the Huskers ahead one of their biggest challenges of the season so far--a matchup with ranked Iowa on Tuesday, Jan. 7.
Iowa, like Nebraska, plays at a high pace, and therefore strangling the game like Rutgers did will not be an option. This is good news for the Huskers, however Iowa’s experience in playing with a Hoiberg-like system might mean that Iowa can beat Nebraska early and often at its own game, a less preferable reality for the young Huskers.