Nine days ago, Nebraska faced off with Penn State in a game that was not expected to be a contest. The Nittany Lions, while not a fantastic team by Big Ten standards, are — and were — surely better than the Huskers.
Yet, by the final alarm, the Huskers pulled out a precious victory. Now Penn State travels to Pinnacle Bank Arena on a four-game losing streak, a revenant upon Nebraska, ready to reclaim some spirit ahead of a fast-approaching Big Ten Tournament.
The game just over a week ago was a decidedly defensive affair, and it is likely to be one again. Penn State overall is a poor team in terms of offensive shooting percentages. In particular, its 2-point field goal completion percentage ranks 299th in the nation, one of the worst, and its 3-point shooting is 142nd in the nation.
Its 3-point shooting, however, is one of its main offensive outlets, considering that Penn State also doesn’t take a lot of free throws. Despite its average 3-point shooting percentage, the team is reliant on shots from beyond the arc. Given the fact that its 3-point distribution is at 41.3%, 69th in the nation, a significant proportion of 3-point scoring for the Nittany Lions comes on 3-pointers.
Despite poor free throw volume and 2-point shooting, Penn State has the 33rd best offense in the nation, according to Kenpom. This comes down to its high volume and average shooting thereafter of the 3-point shot.
Nebraska matches up well with any team that prioritizes the 3-pointer due to its defensive proclivity for that very area. Currently, the Huskers rank 78th in the nation for opponent 3-point shooting percentage.
3-point defense is also typically predicated on limiting an opponent’s distribution overall, though that’s an odd weak point for the team. Nebraska’s opponent 3-point distribution is at 44.5% on the season, one of the highest in all of NCAA basketball.
This odd meshing of values and defensive notions has led to a surprisingly solid defensive unit overall. Nebraska currently has the 45th best defense in all of NCAA basketball according to Kenpom, though that’s roughly adjusted relative to conference.
Penn State’s defense is also suited to stepping out and protecting the 3-point line, a tactic which has helped to limit both distribution and completion percentage to about average proportions. The Nittany Lions boast one of the higher steal rates in the nation as well, which has helped it boast a top-100 turnover percentage.
Penn State’s defense has one glaring flaw, however, in that it possesses one of the worst opponent 2-point completion rates, ranking 313th in the NCAA. This mistake was exploited critically by Nebraska, which shot 54.1% from inside the arc in one of its best Big Ten performances so far this season.
Hoiberg’s offense doesn’t tend to rely on the 2-pointer quite as much as it did against Penn State. Such shots made up 66% of its distribution on that day, more than its average of 58.9%.
Nebraska’s personnel seemed to recognize, either through gameplanning beforehand or dynamically through the game, Penn State’s weakness in this very area. Junior forward Derrick Walker and junior guard Teddy Allen put in great performances from inside the arc thereafter, shooting a combined 8-of-13 on 2-pointers.
The crushing fatigue of Nebraska’s post-COVID-19 break is never too far from any conversation about the team. Recently, it was announced that the team will undergo another run of four games in six days. This comes not long after a streak where the Huskers played seven games in the span of only 12 days.
While second-half collapses have been a staple of Hoiberg’s team so far this season, the collapses of the Maryland back-to-back and Purdue felt more physiological than it was the replication of a pattern.
A second game against Penn State, a team Nebraska knows it can beat, may be one of the Huskers’ best chances to pick up another conference win. But, whether Hoiberg is willing to commit a mentally exhausted squad, or rather save both its psyche and muscle ahead of the tournament, is still to be seen. Especially considering how hungry the Nittany Lions have to be for a win.
The Huskers will tip off against Penn State at 7:00 p.m. on Feb. 23. The game will be televised on the Big Ten Network.