Post-hiatus gametime hasn’t been kind thus far for the Nebraska men’s basketball team. And, with Wisconsin and Illinois looming in the distance, the Huskers’ best upcoming chance for a conference win might’ve been against an embattled Minnesota team.
The Golden Gophers, despite possessing a possible all-Big Ten guard in junior Marcus Carr, have been flat as of late. Minnesota has only managed one victory in its last six games. While five of those games have been against ranked teams, this season hasn’t been altogether fulfilling for head coach Richard Pitino’s team.
It was the aforementioned Carr who opened the game quickly for Minnesota. In the first seven minutes of play, the Canadian had eight points and five assists. Despite his obvious caliber, Carr has had struggles which coincide with the Golden Gophers’ recent issues. Against Purdue on Jan. 30, Carr only managed six points on 2-of-13 shooting, his worst outing of the season.
This, combined with a lackluster scoring start from the Huskers, meant that Nebraska was down 15-6 only five minutes into the game. Another five minutes went by and the Huskers were in a bigger hole, down 28-14 with things looking bleak.
“I was proud of the effort fighting back. When we do turn it on and fight back, we’re normally down double digits,” head coach Fred Hoiberg said postgame. “I’d love to see that thing even, or have a couple point lead, to where we can push it up and take a double-digit lead.”
Nebraska mounted a comeback with plenty of time remaining in the second half. Despite going into the break down 45-30, and giving up six points early to start the second half, the Huskers rebounded from there. With 11 minutes left in the game, Nebraska was only down 45-52, mostly off the back of junior guard Shamiel Stevenson and junior forward Lat Mayen.
Mayen has been an inconsistent entity so far this season for the Huskers. His three made 3-pointers in the season opener against McNeese St. were a slight mirage for what has proven to be an inconsistent stroke for the transfer.
Yet, Mayen was the driving force for the Huskers against Minnesota. By the end of the night, he was Nebraska’s leading scorer with 15 points on good shooting splits. He went 3-of-6 from the 3-point line and 2-of-3 from inside the arc. In fact, he was the only Husker to make a 3-pointer all night against the Golden Gophers, despite 15 team attempts.
In truth, the Huskers’ confidence in their 3-point shooting ability seems to have completely collapsed since the hiatus grounded the team to a standstill. Against Indiana on Jan. 10, the team managed a 39.1% 3-point completion rate while on a fairly high 40% distribution.
However, against Minnesota, Nebraska only managed to put up 15 3-pointers in total, making up a mere 26% of its total shots. Were this to carry over a full season for the Huskers, it’d easily be the lowest 3-point distribution a Hoiberg-led team has ever managed. This, in general, points to a complete collapse in confidence on Nebraska’s end, with Hoiberg attributing it to ball retention.
“We have to take care of the ball. We’re just driving that thing into a pile right now and it’s frustrating because, when we move it, we’re pretty damn good,” Hoiberg said. “The unfortunate thing, when I look at it, we had nine turnovers against Indiana, eight against Michigan, we had nine against Wisconsin. Then, these two games back, you get 17 against Michigan State, 18 tonight… we’re not good enough.”
Stevenson’s performance, as opposed to Mayen, was somewhat less expected. Stevenson is considered a high usage player for Nebraska, but has so far failed to accompany that usage with any sort of impact.
In fact, he’s Nebraska’s lowest impact player at a Box Plus-Minus of -2.5, excluding only the likes of redshirt freshman forward Bret Porter, freshman center Eduardo Andre and freshman guard Elijah Wood. All three of those players have seen extremely limited game time.
Yet, versus Minnesota, Stevenson has shown part of what made him viable in the first place. In the first half, Nebraska was unable to score from outside the paint, and while that statistic alone is quite disappointing, a significant amount of that offense from inside the paint came from Stevenson.
Leveraging his weight and free-throw shooting, Stevenson scored 10 points in the first half. Those 10 points, already, would’ve made up his most in Big Ten play in his career with the Huskers. By the end of the game, he had 14 points on 5-of-9 shooting from inside the arc.
“Shamiel’s given us phenomenal minutes. He’s given us great energy, he’s got power out there. He’s a versatile defender,” Hoiberg said. “When he drives it with a straight line, he’s very effective.”
Despite Mayen and Stevenson both exceeding expectations, it wasn’t enough to overcome some of the more base problems in the team, like its 3-point shooting. By the end of the game, Minnesota came out with a 79-61 win.
Unfortunately for the Huskers, their first two opponents since the pause, while brutal, appeared to be the most winnable of their slate of games in the near future. Especially now, with the rescheduling of a game against No. 6 Illinois which was heretofore canceled for later in the week. With these realities in mind, Hoiberg and the Huskers may have to wait longer yet for a Big Ten win, barring an upset.
“Mentally, I think we’re still locked in. We just have to stick together, do what coach says. All we can do is stick together and pay for each other right now,” Mayen said postgame. “But mentally, we’re good right now.”