Following weeks of controversy and uncertainty, the Nebraska men’s basketball team needed this one.
Unfortunately for the Huskers, long swathes of desertified game time kept Nebraska only close enough to Kansas State to keep fans in Pinnacle Bank Arena, if nothing else.
By the end of the game, the Wildcats beat Nebraska 67-58. The Huskers opened the game strong but looked lost for the rest of it.
“Effort was there, no doubt about it. But we didn’t continue on with what made us successful there,” Nebraska men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg said postgame. “Those 12 minutes were as good as we played all year.”
Nebraska’s four-game losing streak began with the month. On Dec. 1, the team played out a grueling four-overtime affair to North Carolina State. The Huskers frequently had opportunities to come out on top, but could never seal the game.
Though a heartbreaking loss, it was against far superior opposition, and was rather close. Unfortunately for Nebraska, the loss would be the high point to the month heading into the Kansas State game.
In between that game and Sunday’s game, the Huskers suffered three losses on the bounce, each a bit worse than the last. Against Indiana, the team lost 68-55, but the scoreline doesn’t communicate how poor Nebraska looked. The next two games, a 102-67 loss to Michigan and 99-68 loss to Auburn, were even worse.
“We need to win, we need to get some confidence going with this group,” Hoiberg said. “Through this time, nobody’s going to feel sorry for us. We can’t drop our heads.
Nebraska’s 3-point conversion has been the most glaring problem in Hoiberg’s squad so far this season. Heading into the game with the Wildcats, the team shot a pitiful 25.9% from behind the arc, the No. 333 mark in all of college basketball.
And it wasn’t like the team wasn’t taking shots, either. Over 40% of the team’s shots were 3-pointers heading into the game, but that 40% of shots made up a mere 26.1% of the team’s total points. Something had to change.
Yet, when the clock sounded to start the game, Hoiberg decided to field a starting lineup unchanged from prior December embarrassments. The coach was banking on the team’s ability to break through the odd ceiling that was its heinous shooting.
Did it work? No, not really.
The team opened the first half shooting the ball well, mostly down to sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga. Tominaga made two shots to begin the game, and after him freshman guard Bryce McGowens stepped up to make a 3-pointer of his own.
At this time, five minutes into the game, the Huskers were up 14-7 and looking good for it, mostly off the back of poor offensive play by the Wildcats. Though the Wildcats aren’t the best team offensively, it performs better on average than its 2-of-15 behind-the-arc first-half performance might indicate.
Regardless, the offense wasn’t pretty but it was effective. The Huskers were even getting good foul calls, a key part of their offensive which had been lacking in the losing streak. McGowens ended the first half with five free-throw attempts, though he missed three of them.
Nebraska’s quick offense saw its highest point off of a nice transition feed from McGowens, whipped across the court from one wing to the other down to freshman guard CJ Wilcher, who dispatched the shot to make it 25-15 Nebraska.
Around this time, the Huskers were 5-of-11 from the 3-point line. They weren’t perfect, but doing far better than usual.
Then, the drought started. With nearly nine minutes left in the half, the Huskers would only score one more time before the halftime buzzer sounded. It’s hard to explain why, exactly. In one sense, the middle clogged up considerably and the team was left to put up wayward 3-pointers.
The team tends to do well when about 35-40% of its shots are 3-pointers, but when the offense is doing poorly that number tends to balloon to around 50%. Against Kansas State in the first half, 68% of its shots were 3-pointers.
Heading into the break, Nebraska was down 33-27. Despite barely scoring at all for about a quarter of the game, a combination of Wildcat offensive incompetence and fair defensive effort kept Nebraska in the game.
The second half went much the way of, not only the first, but much of Nebraska’s play so far this season. The team started the first five minutes strong, even opening a 36-33 lead over its opponent, but, just like that, things stopped working.
Well, not all things. Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr., who played more of a support role in the first half, was forced to take charge once again due to his team’s inefficiency. While this usually spells disaster for both the team and Verge, the latter was able to put together a good performance.
By the end of the game, Verge had 21 points on 7-of-14 shooting with five assists. He had six turnovers as well, but five of those came in the first half. Overall, in the second half, he kept the Huskers in the game.
But Verge taking control of the offense signified a deeper malaise in the team. Nebraska made a mere 10 shots the entirety of the second half, with most of its point total driven by free throws which, as the past few weeks prove, the team can’t reliably draw when playing against better opposition.
Just as the team went on a scoring drought to end the first half, the Huskers did not make a 3-pointer for the entirety of the second half, ending the game 17.9% from the 3-point line. Though Hoiberg bet early that his team’s shooting would level out, the question is rapidly becoming whether the Huskers have even hit their floor yet, with weeks of Big Ten action to come.
“Just got to continue to move it,” Hoiberg said. “We got to get the ball in better positions to make plays. I knew we were going to have some growing pains…but it goes back to what made us successful earlier.”
This comes with some caveats. Kansas State was heading into the game with an exceptional 3-point defense, ranked second in the nation according to kenpom.com, but that doesn’t explain a 17.9% mark from the 3-point line.
Kansas State’s most brutal run came with 10 minutes left in the second half. Over four minutes, the Wildcats scored 12 points. On the face of it, that’s not a cause for crisis, but to match those 12 points the Huskers only scored two.
With a 57-49 lead opened up over the Huskers, the game was effectively over. Nebraska’s defense was good all night, but the offense was abysmal.
The Huskers have one more nonconference game to massage the offense and get it to shape before Big Ten play resumes. Nebraska plays Kennesaw State on Wednesday.
“I’m confident with whatever we run,” junior forward Derrick Walker said postgame. “I still have confidence in this group.”