Nobody is under the illusion that, for Nebraska men’s basketball, the last four games compare at all to the next two.
On Wednesday, Nebraska faces a Georgia Tech team which, despite two losses to open the season to Georgia State and Mercer, rallied to a win against blue-blood Kentucky on Sunday. While Kentucky has had a disastrous start to the season, Georgia Tech’s achievement shouldn’t be understated.
Then, Nebraska goes up against intrastate rival Creighton on Friday, which has started the season fantastically despite a close-fought defeat to No. 5 Kansas on Tuesday. This will be Nebraska’s first game away from home on the season.
Last year, head coach Fred Hoiberg’s team played the same two opponents in nonconference play, and the Huskers were outclassed severely in both of those games. Against Georgia Tech on the road, the Huskers lost 73-56 and against Creighton, after a brutal first half for Nebraska, the Bluejays emerged 95-76 victors.
“They’re returning a lot of players, and they’re a really experienced team [Georgia Tech],” senior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson said in a press conference Tuesday. “That game, it was pretty physical, and they played a lot of zone … Obviously, they’re coming off a big win, and we need to be ready to start off well.”
Though Nebraska has a few players who remember the Georgia Tech and Creighton games, Thorbjarnarson included, the Huskers have once again shaken up their roster completely in 2020. And, with the first few games having been played, the additions seem to be of a higher quality than last year’s team. This week’s games will be a good benchmark for understanding exactly how changed this team is from last year, and how well it will do in conference play.
One reason for this is the lack of turnover for both opponents. The instrumental pieces in Georgia Tech’s victory over Nebraska, namely junior guard Michael Devoe and senior forward Moses Wright, remain.
Creighton, too, has some familiar faces from its triumph last year. Junior guard Marcus Zegarowski was named the Big East’s preseason player of the year and junior forward Christian Bishop seems to have only improved from last season. Guard Ty-Shon Alexander, however, departed the program.
Regardless of the result of either game, Nebraska’s performance will most likely be improved from last year on both ends of the court.
One significant problem against Georgia Tech last year was Nebraska’s 2-point field goal finishing. Despite matching the Yellow Jackets in a number of key categories, including rebounds, 3-point field goal percentage and free-throw percentage, Georgia Tech significantly outclassed the Huskers inside, shooting 54% to the Huskers’ 38.5%.
Nebraska’s 2-point field goal percentage so far this year has improved dramatically. Over four games, it’s currently shooting 83rd-best in the nation at 52.9%. Some of the reason for this isn’t necessarily an improvement in the 2-point field goal percentage itself but rather an improvement in free-throw rate.
The Huskers are currently 56th in the nation for free throws attempted over field goals attempted, an incredible improvement from its mark last year at 268th in the nation. Shots which end in fouls are not counted as attempts, and thereby the overall field goal percentage typically goes up as a result.
Against Creighton last year, 2-point defense was a particular concern again. The Bluejays shot 61.1% from inside the arc on their way to trouncing Nebraska, and so far this season they have only gotten better. Creighton is currently third in the nation in 2-point field goal percentage at 65.4%.
That being said, Nebraska’s rim protection seems to have also taken a drastic step-up from last year. The Huskers were 293rd in the nation last year in opponent 2-point field goal percentage, and that has so far improved to a respectable 39th in the nation.
Of course, the Bluejays are not necessarily a team predicated on 2-point scoring, given that 44.4% of their shots are 3-pointers, but Nebraska should be able to plug more holes around the rim than it was able to last year.
Another concern, or possible benefit, for the Huskers going into Wednesday’s matchup against Georgia Tech and Friday’s against Creighton is the cancellation of the Huskers’ game against Florida A&M. The Rattlers had a support staff member test positive for COVID-19, and thus the game was canceled.
“It was a disappointment, obviously, for our guys. They were in the weight room when they heard the game was canceled,” Hoiberg said in a press conference Tuesday. “You have to manage it properly to get their minds right when they lose an opportunity to go out there and compete.”
Whether or not the cancellation will have an impact in any way on the result of either game is uncertain, but one can take some positives from the cancellation. Nebraska was coming off of a span of four games in six days, and was heading into another three in five. Offloading some of that game time will help the fitness of the players involved.
There are many tangible ways one can conclude that Nebraska has improved significantly since last season, but how much this will manifest itself in two of the bigger games for the Huskers all season is yet to be seen. While one may gesture towards improved talent as the sole motivator for the Huskers’ success so far this season, Hoiberg has another answer.
“I think our big thing, and I’ll go back to when we first got this group together...you just saw a passion for the game of basketball,” Hoiberg said. “And you have to have that if you’re gonna be a consistent team every time you step on the floor.”