The long-promised offensive overhaul promised by head coach Fred Hoiberg showed the first signs of fruition Wednesday in a needed win for the beleaguered Nebraska men’s basketball team.
Now clearly the result, an 88-74 win over Kennesaw State, won’t and should not change narratives surrounding the team as it heads into Big Ten play, and there were similar false dawns against the likes of South Dakota, but unlike those games the Huskers against the Owls were possessed by an offensive direction heretofore unseen this season.
By the end of the night, the team had broken its losing streak in about as good a fashion as it could considering the opponent, building some modicum of confidence going into a week-long break.
“They didn’t take the film session personally, they carried over and took it constructively,” Hoiberg said postgame. “We really worked on our execution and our shot selection and I thought that carried over pretty much all the game.”
The essential narrative concerning Nebraska basketball this season is its 3-point shooting malaise. Heading into the game against Kennesaw State, the team was shooting 25.2% from the 3-point line, 352nd-worst in all of college basketball.
One of the low points of this dry spell likely came just Sunday night against Kansas State, where the team failed to make a 3-pointer for the rest of the game with 8:48 remaining. That is, 8:48 remaining in the first half.
Hoiberg attributed this dry spell partly to statistical error early in the season. But, as the ship continued to capsize, Hoiberg promised more sweeping offensive changes down to the way the team played.
For the first time so far this season, it worked.
The Huskers, utilizing more fully the contribution of junior forward Derrick Walker and emphasizing the inside-out game, hit 15-of-29 from the 3-point line, its highest completion percentages so far this season.
“To me it’s all about confidence and trust,” senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. said postgame. “Just trust each other night to move the ball and take an extra pass, trust like that.”
While the likes of sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga and freshman guard Bryce McGowens put the ball in the basket, they were assisted mightily by the team’s playmakers. Verge played a great game with 16 points and 12 assists on seven turnovers, but the offense clicked primarily through Walker’s contribution.
Walker thrived playmaking out of the high post, identifying open players who, if not in shooting position themselves, were in a good spot to get their teammate in the corner or wing open.
Walker only ended with one assist, but the team overall had 20, one of the highest so far this season, and this is due in no small part to Walker’s contribution.
“He’s really good. I have to put him as one of the top playmakers on this team,” Hoiberg said of Walker. “When, again, a ball hits his hand or whether he scores it or whether he makes the next play, good things happen.”
This isn’t to discount Verge, who especially near the end of the game demonstrated his penchant for illusive, close-quarters passes distributed across the team. Walker also ended with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting, a testament to Verge’s contribution in the pick-and-roll.
Another player who benefitted from the new offensive setup was senior forward Trevor Lakes, who not only saw some of his most significant game time so far this season, but also repaid Hoiberg’s trust with a pair of made 3-pointers.
Lakes was used at the four-spot in the game, playing off of either Walker or freshman forward Eduardo Andre. Traditionally in Hoiberg’s Nebraska lineups, he’s been against playing two bigs in a single lineup, but against the Owls he went back to his Iowa State days and even played a couple of offensive sets reliant on the two forwards.
Near the end of the first half, the team ran a horns-set series that Lakes benefited from significantly, as he broke free on the left center-wing and dropped a snapshot 3-pointer. It was one of the starkest scheme departures the Huskers employed this season.
“I was proud of Trevor for going out there and giving us those good minutes,” Hoiberg said.
Nebraska flipped the script just a bit against the Owls, in truth. To start the game, the team looked disjointed. A miss from Tominaga resulted in a long, torturous offensive sequence from Kennesaw State that ended with a second-chance 3-pointer.
Right off the back of that, Owls junior forward Demond Robinson plucked the ball off a turnover and converted the fastbreak dunk, silencing and exasperating the Nebraska spectators in the audience.
Nebraska so far this season tends to be best in the first few minutes of the game. This includes the first 12 against Kansas State, the first seven against Indiana — the team were at its worst in this time period against the Owls.
Overall, for the team, the win was more significant, not by the magnitude of the scoreline, but the manner in which said lead was built.
For one of the first times this season, the team prosecuted a strong, articulated offensive plan to completion and in doing so performed the best it has offensively so far this season. For Hoiberg and the Huskers, that’s a cause for celebration right before the holidays.
“It was a really solid effort against a good team. I was really concerned with this team, it’s always a concern with this getaway game, where your players go home,” Hoiberg said. “We were really good.”