Winning hasn’t come easily in the Big Ten conference for the Nebraska men’s basketball team.
The Huskers’ last victory over a conference opponent came over a year ago, a 76-70 triumph over Iowa on Jan. 7, 2020. Since then, Nebraska has lost 24 consecutive games to conference foes in a variety of fashions. The Huskers have lost heartbreakers down the stretch, suffered a variety of second-half collapses and, bar that, been flat-out dominated at times.
Unfortunately for head coach Fred Hoiberg’s squad, a combination of the second and third items on that list has been the norm for the Huskers in Big Ten play. Nebraska has really struggled to get all of its offensive pieces clicking consistently all season, with flashes of offensive brilliance squandered by lengthy stretches of inefficient play.
It’s hard to identify one specific problem with the Husker offense because, as a whole, it struggles to do much well. As a whole, Nebraska’s offense is slightly more than efficient last year, currently sitting at 170th in the country versus 190th in the country last season, according to kenpom.com.
This mainly has to do with the Huskers’ ability to get to the free throw line, which they’re doing at a significantly higher clip than they did last year. While Nebraska is still shooting below 65% from the line as a team, its free throw rate is No. 50 in the country, compared to No. 268 a season ago.
Besides getting to the free throw line, though, Nebraska is struggling to generate success in any major offensive category. The Huskers are on pace to boast a lower 3-point percentage and effective field goal percentage than they did a season ago, as both figures are lower than last season’s final numbers in those fields. Nebraska’s 2-point field goal percentage, while currently ranked higher nationally than it was last season, is just two-tenths better than last year’s mark of 46.3% from inside the arc.
Taking numbers solely from conference play doesn’t help Hoiberg’s squad much. The Huskers have the lowest offensive efficiency rating (87.6), effective field goal percentage (43.7%) and 3-point percentage (28.6%) in the Big Ten, and the second-lowest 2-point percentage (44.2%).
A struggling offense appeared to be turning a corner at the beginning of 2021, with encouraging offensive performances in competitive losses to Michigan State and Indiana. Then came Nebraska’s three-week pause due to COVID-19, and it now appears, unsurprisingly, that the Huskers are back to square one when it comes to offensive production.
The Huskers have made just five 3-pointers in their first two games back from their pause, and have shot below their conference average from both inside and outside the arc in the losses. Nebraska shot just under 44% from the field in its loss against Michigan State on Feb. 6, but a brutal 17% 3-point completion rate ultimately doomed the offense and sent it to only scoring 56 points in a 10-point defeat. Nebraska again struggled to shoot the ball against Minnesota on Monday, not making a field goal outside of the paint until the second half and making just three 3-pointers in a 79-61 loss.
No. 21 Wisconsin’s visit to Pinnacle Bank Arena on Wednesday night won’t offer much of a reprieve for the Huskers’ offensive struggles. The Badgers aren’t only one of the best defensive units in the Big Ten, but one of the best in the country. According to kenpom.com, the Badgers have the No. 9 highest defensive efficiency in the country and the third-best in the Big Ten during conference play, behind Michigan and Illinois.
The Badgers hold opponents, on average, to a 46.6% effective field goal percentage and limit the opposition’s ability to get to the free throw line, which has been the only reliable part of Nebraska’s offense so far. Wisconsin has not only been able to limit opponents’ abilities to get to the charity stripe, but its opponents have struggled to convert them as well.
In Nebraska’s first matchup with Wisconsin on Dec. 22, the Huskers went to the free throw line 17 times and made nine attempts. It was Nebraska’s second-lowest free throw total of the year, with the lowest being 15 against Georgia Tech. Getting to the line early and often while getting Wisconsin’s talented big men in foul trouble is Nebraska’s most definite strategy to success.
Another avenue on Wednesday night could be for Nebraska to exploit a weak Badger offense. The Badgers’ M.O. is to limit the number of possessions in the game, slow down the tempo to a snail’s pace and move the ball inside-out. Wisconsin’s aforementioned big men, senior forwards Micah Potter and Nate Reuvers, help Wisconsin accomplish this.
The Badgers don’t do any one thing particularly well, as they’re middle-of-the-road in most Big Ten offensive statistics, but they have an experienced roster and definite identity. Head coach Greg Gard’s team doesn’t waver when faced with adversity, and they faced plenty in their first matchup with Nebraska.
Wisconsin had managed just three points in the game’s opening 10 minutes in these squads’ first matchup, but Nebraska was unable to crack the stout Badger defense to build a significant opening. Nebraska had led 7-3 before the Badgers finally woke up, and Wisconsin even managed to hold a halftime lead, 25-24, before dominating Nebraska in the second half en-route to a 67-53.
The Huskers’ offensive numbers from that late-December look strikingly similar to their performances in their first two games back from their COVID-19 pause. Nebraska fired 27 3-pointers and made eight, good for just under 30%. From inside the arc, the Huskers managed to convert just 37% of their attempts, a central reason as to why Nebraska was unable to hold more of an advantage early on.
Badger senior guard Brad Davison, who had 30 points against Nebraska last season at Pinnacle Bank Arena, led Wisconsin in scoring with 15 points while Davison and Potter added 10 points each.
For Nebraska to score an upset over the Badgers, it must find consistency from long range first and foremost. Junior forward Lat Mayen, who made all of Nebraska’s 3-point attempts against Minnesota, appears to have regained his shooting form after going through a bit of a mid-season slump in which he struggled with consistently knocking down shots.
Behind him, Nebraska’s 3-point shooting is an unknown quantity. Senior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson and senior forward Trevor Lakes, both proven 3-point shooters, have struggled to make an impact in Nebraska’s rotation. Junior guard Teddy Allen’s presence would be a boost on Wednesday night, as he had 11 points and three 3-pointers against the Badgers earlier this season, but he missed Monday night’s contest against Minnesota and his status for Wednesday’s game is currently unknown.
The Badgers enter this game losers of two of three and will undoubtedly hope to bounce back against a Husker squad still looking for their identity following a long pause. If Nebraska cannot generate open looks from the outside and get quality looks at the rim, Wisconsin will be able to do just that.