Nebraska men’s basketball is approaching Saturday’s game in a similar state to how it approached its last outing against Wisconsin in mid-January. At that time, Nebraska was coming off a loss to Indiana, the third game in a losing streak that still has not ended.
A loss to Northwestern immediately after beating Iowa effectively quelled any momentum for the young Huskers, but there was still some excitement surrounding the team as it went to Madison to play Wisconsin.
This time around, a seemingly hopeless team coming off blowout losses to Michigan, Penn State and Iowa nearly beat the best team in the Big Ten — Maryland — on Tuesday and played a radical new “Nebrasketsmall” system.
Much like the runup to the first game against Wisconsin, there is tentative hope surrounding this Nebraska team that there may be a way forward. Not necessarily a way toward victory, but rather an establishment of a vision that had seemed to get away from head coach Fred Hoiberg as the losses began piling up.
Nebraska has some reason to believe using this strategy against Wisconsin will go similarly to the game against Maryland. Wisconsin and Maryland both have a high 3-point frequency, top 75 in the nation, and a sub-standard 3-point completion percentage outside the top 100 in the nation.
This being said, there are clear stylistic differences between the two teams. Both play slower games, though Wisconsin rivals one of the slowest teams in college basketball, Virginia, in number of possessions per 40 minutes. Wisconsin completely strangles the game, playing a form of the old Princeton offense that emphasizes constant movement and running out the shot clock. This has led to Wisconsin possessing the 15th-best defense in NCAA basketball. At the same time, fears that Wisconsin may silence Nebraska offensively like last time can be remedied by the fact that Maryland has the fifth-best defense in the nation and Nebraska scored very well against it.
Last time against Wisconsin, Nebraska struggled to stop its 3-point scoring. Wisconsin shot 18-for-34 from the 3-point line, good for 52.9%. That being said, Wisconsin spread the offense around, not relying on one individual player. Despite scoring 82 points against Nebraska, no one player scored more than 14 points. Nebraska generally does better against more individual-centered offenses. It was able to mitigate the effects of sophomore forward Jalen Smith of Maryland and also forced an inefficient night from Iowa sophomore guard Joe Wieskamp. Against teams with more points of attack, like Michigan, Nebraska has a hard time scheming system-level defenses.
There is a path to victory for Nebraska. Wisconsin’s high volume of 3-pointers should play well for the new-and-improved switch-heavy defense of the Huskers. Though it didn’t work last time, the introduction of freshman forward Kevin Cross in the starting lineup is a significant one for defensive schemes. Nebraska also had one of its worst 3-point defense nights against Wisconsin, something that shouldn’t generally be expected given the 3-point ability of both teams.
At the same time, there’s a path through fire for Nebraska, as well. There’s no confirmation that Hoiberg will continue to play with the small-ball formation that proved successful against Maryland. Going back to freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo will close down significant options opened up in the spread offense Hoiberg is fond of. If Wisconsin shoots like it did against Nebraska in Madison, the game will be over before it starts.