74 points, 37 rebounds, 31 free throws, three blocks and eight steals, six assists, 39% from the field, 25% from the 3-point line, 12 turnovers, lopsided usage rates, a chorus of boos and groans and cries, all of these are components of a loss.
With 34 seconds left in the Nebraska men’s basketball game against Western Illinois, sophomore guard CJ Wilcher extended Nebraska’s lead with a free throw. Up 73-69, the team looked primed to escape an early season scare. Then, it didn’t.
A pair of back to back 3-pointers broke Nebraska’s back and, after a wild layup by senior guard Alonzo Verge fell short the game was over. A season filled with so much promise has fallen headfirst, faceplanted on opening night.
Unfortunately for head coach Fred Hoiberg and the Huskers, the loss wasn’t an aberration, or even all that undeserved. Systemic, predictable problems reared their head, making the loss inevitable.
The game started off stagnant for Nebraska’s offense. It took until after two minutes into the game for Nebraska to score, and another minute before it would score a field goal.
Freshman guard Bryce McGowens was one of the leading figures in the offense, finishing the game with a 33.1% usage rate. His final splits were broadly respectable, going 7-of-18 from the field with a great 10-12 from the line, but in these crucial early parts of the game, the five-star recruit looked disjointed in the Hoiberg offense.
Instead of pushing hard in transition upon receiving the ball, McGowens was in the early stages of the game slow in possession. Instead of going for the signature tempo-pushing Hoiberg drive, McGowens opted for far less effective halfcourt sets.
But to blame the offense’s general dysfunction on the night, and was it dysfunction — the team shot a mere 25% from the 3-point line and was only saved by solid free-throw shooting, on any one player is missing the point, slightly.
“It was my biggest concern with what happened when adversity hit us, and obviously we didn’t handle it well tonight,” Hoiberg said postgame. “When the ball wasn’t going in the hoop early, I just felt we tried to do it individually and go one-on-one and that’s disappointing that it came to that.”
The most damning evidence of this came in the assist numbers. By the end of the game, the Huskers had only tallied a mere six assists per its 23 made field goals, five of which came in the second half, amounting to a mere 26% assist to field goals made ratio.
By comparison, the Huskers’ assist to field goals made ratio was at 54.6% per kenpom.com, and in the 2013-2014 season at Iowa State, Hoiberg’s offense averaged 62.4%.
“That was all on us. Rather we let what they did affect us or not, we only had six assists for the game. That’s not like us, and we need to focus on that,” junior forward Derrick Walker said postgame. “It’s the first game so we have to go back and chop the film up and get better.”
A sputtering offensive performance wasn’t the only problem which doomed the first half for the Huskers.
To take the lead near the end of the first half, Western Illinois exploited a mismatch in the low post. Junior forward Cameron Burrell bodied sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga and put up the shot.
It bounced off the rim, down back to the play area. The Leathernecks rebounded, rebounded again and then once more, finally getting the go ahead bucket with about 40 seconds left in the first half.
This happening once is bad enough, but for it to happen again, nearly beat for beat, with a buzzer beater at the very end of the first half, is near incomprehensible. In the span of two possessions, Western Illinois had accrued six offensive rebounds, and went into the locker rooms with a 33-32 lead.
Pinnacle Bank Arena, with a sizeable crowd, began to jeer.
Hoiberg’s fears were confirmed. The coach, who spoke all week on the team’s problematic rebounding, was outrebounded 33-18 in the first half. The visitors had 12 offensive rebounds to Nebraska’s two.
“I actually thought we were going to come out and be a lot better on the offensive boards today,” Walker said. “It’s just toughness. We have to toughen up. At some point, we have to say we're tired of letting people come in and get our boards. We have to toughen up as a team.”
The rebounding woes were the basis for a fundamentally difficult night for Hoiberg and the Huskers. By the end of the game, the Leathernecks had outrebounded Nebraska by 20, with 23 full offensive rebounds to Hoiberg’s seven.
The rebounding performance, too, was a team effort from Western Illinois. The stars on the night, senior forward Luka Barisic and junior guard Trenton Massner both had their fair share of rebounds.
Blaming the rebounding, in this instance, on size or some other physical problem rings hollow when Massner, standing at 6-foot-2 did so well on the defensive glass with nine rebounds.
These two key problems plagued the Huskers throughout the game. The team was only kept afloat by virtue of a good performance from the line, where Nebraska went 74.2% overall.
That number would’ve been far higher were it not for the team’s inability to close out the game at the very end. In the last minute of the game alone, junior guard Trey McGowens missed a pair of free throws, Verge split a pair and Wilcher also split a pair.
After the game’s end, Hoiberg gave a brief press conference. He said the team didn’t show what it was capable of, while also sparing notes for physicality and the prospect of Friday’s game. It took just over three minutes.
“From what I've seen out of them and how we bounce back from disappointing days, I’m confident that we’ll bounce back the right way tomorrow. We have to,” Hoiberg said. “Again we’re playing a good team on Friday, and we need to grow in a lot of areas. I think we’ll grow from it, I hope we grow from it.