If Nebraska basketball is to end its six-game losing streak on Saturday, the Huskers should look for tips from their last win, a 76-70 defeat of Iowa on Jan. 7.
Against Iowa, Nebraska had its best game of the season. Playing the third-ranked offense in the country according to kenpom.com, Nebraska held Iowa to 12% 3-point shooting at Pinnacle Bank Arena. This provides the bedrock for a working theory on Nebraska basketball, namely that it performs better against similarly high-paced offensive teams than against slower ones.
Iowa and Penn State are similar teams in many ways. Both are high-pace teams that rank high in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Both protect the ball fairly well, ranking in the upper third for turnover percentage in the nation. Penn State averages a slightly higher distribution of 3-pointers than Iowa, as 39.4% of its shots are 3-pointers compared to Iowa’s 37.4%. Penn State is ranked better than Iowa in defensive efficiency, 22nd in the nation versus Iowa’s 78th ranking. Iowa on the other hand, is far better than Penn State at converting 3-pointers, and is ranked 88th in the nation against Penn State’s 249th.
While the two have similar offensive profiles, there’s one big difference. Iowa’s offense is highly predicated off the assist, and it has the third-highest assist-to-field-goal-made ratio in the nation. Penn State, on the other hand, is around average at 183rd in the nation. Penn State’s offense isn’t quite like Iowa’s, based more on the pick-and-roll and sometimes based on singular movements, with the ball handler going alone and driving into the lane. This is part of the reason why the assist ratio is lower for Penn State than Iowa.
At the same time, it may be preferable for Nebraska that Penn State’s guards are more focused on the shot than the pass. Nebraska has a problem defending in the paint against big men, averaging an exceedingly low block percentage on defense. An 18-point game from Michigan freshman forward Franz Wagner, with the forward shooting 7-10 from inside-the-arc on Tuesday showed that Nebraska has developed little in interior defending so far this year.
Senior forward Lamar Stevens has been fantastic offensively in Big Ten play so far this year, and Nebraska’s weakness in the interior will mean that much of Nebraska’s game plan may be focused around preventing high-quality shots from other Penn State players.
With this in mind, sophomore guard Myreon Jones may be the lynchpin of the game for Penn State. The guard, who has the highest offensive rating on Penn State currently, is shooting 39.6% from the 3-point line this season and has shot more 3-pointers than 2-pointers so far this season. All of this is wrapped up in the fact that his usage rate is the fifth-highest on the team at 22.1%, only a percent away from unseating the third-highest on the team, junior guard Izaiah Brockington.
Brockington has been inconsistent so far this season. His 2-point scoring ranks high at 52%, but his 3-point scoring is only at 8-36, good for 22%. In his first season at St. Bonaventure, he shot a much more respectable 41.5% from the 3-pointer line on more shots than he’s attempted this season.
Games against Nebraska are most often won through the guards, mostly because it’s difficult to score enough points with big men to outscore Nebraska. Despite Nebraska’s interior weakness, guard play decides games against the Huskers. In Nebraska’s last win, Iowa found almost no production from its guards, with only 23% of its points coming from the backcourt. Iowa also only shot 3-20 from the 3-point line in shots taken from its guards.
Nebraska’s victory over Iowa may’ve been a fluke. It’s possible that Iowa’s 3-point shooting drought should be taken as a kind of divine act for Nebraska to win a game in the Big Ten. It’s also possible that Nebraska’s relative offensive efficiency against Iowa was a fluke (it shot 38.5% from the 3-point line against its average 34%). Penn State is a team similar enough offensively and defensively that, while not a mirror image, a game similar to the one against Iowa can be expected. Nebraska’s fans will be hoping for a similar result as well.