With the Golden Window Classic in the rearview mirror, fans, media and analysts got their first chance to see how head coach Fred Hoiberg’s wildly different team would line up. There were clear bright spots, the emphatic wins over North Dakota State and McNeese State being chief among them, but on the whole Nebraska performed about par to expectations going into the season.
While the loss to Nevada, on the face of it, may look quite poor, it basically implies that Nebraska has improved about as much as we expected. Yes, the Huskers are better, and perhaps far more dangerous, but they haven’t taken the astronomic lift to be considered anywhere approaching more than about average. This is still considerably better than last year, but a while off contending.
Unfortunately, average just doesn’t quite cut it in the Big Ten, where every team other than Nebraska holds at least a top 70 adjusted efficiency in the nation according to kenpom.com. This is the dilemma of schedule strength: Nebraska’s record may be similar to last year, even though it’s improved greatly in almost every aspect.
Part of measuring improvement can be apparent through statistics. However something may look, the stats have a tendency to paint a purer picture of events, regardless of aesthetics. And while the Huskers looked up and down during the Golden Window Classic, the stats indicate that they are travelling upwards.
Steal percentage a big plus early
While the relatively improved shooting from both the 3-point line and free-throw line isn’t all that surprising, the uptick in steal percentage certainly is. Last season, Nebraska was merely an OK team when it came to steal percentage, ranking 136th in the nation. Now, through three games, the Huskers’ steal percentage has exploded, ranking a high 17.5%, which is sixth best in the nation currently.
Considering that the Huskers steal percentage last year was a relative positive to the rest of the team, it perhaps leads to the assumption that this improvement has a systemic element. And, indeed, Nebraska’s defense is largely predicated on constricting inside space through building walls and switching at every possible opportunity.
This frenetic style of defense makes interceptions a common occurrence, because players are less stapled to specific spots on the court and confusion can be sown amongst opposing offenses easily. Closing down the lane also contributes to the high turnover rate, because help defenders are given the flexibility to swipe down at driving attackers.
While the defensive scheme does lend itself well to a high volume of steals, its successful execution is highly predicated on the exploits of senior guard Kobe Webster and junior guard Teddy Allen. Allen, in particular, ranks 10th in the nation in steal percentage with a high mark of 8.4%. By comparison, the Big Ten’s leader in steal percentage last season was Penn State senior guard Jamari Wheeler, who registered a steal percentage of 3.3%.
Of course, Allen’s ridiculously high steal rate probably won’t translate one-to-one over to Big Ten play, and during his time at West Virginia he only registered a 1.7% steal rate, but his seemingly good acclimation to his new surroundings and hot start implies Allen’s defense will be a weapon in the future.
And the opponents Allen has gone up against have been quite stout in ball retention traditionally. Nevada, for example, where Allen notched five steals, had the 50th lowest turnover rate in the country last season. This was not buoyed by their non-steal turnover percentage, which means Nevada just didn’t give up many turnovers whatsoever last season. North Dakota State, where Allen notched another five steals, had the fifth best turnover rate in the country last season.
There are asterisks to these statistics, of course. First, as stated, a lot of Allen’s production comes from defensive scheme, and when the defense is not guarding quite as well, Allen’s production probably will not remain the same. Furthermore, any set of one or two games can’t be taken as absolute fact, and Allen’s previous steal production leaves question marks over the replicability of this tremendous steal rate.
The defense looks good overall
There is some reason to believe that high steal percentages don’t necessarily correlate strongly with good defenses. To rank high on these metrics, one has to gamble a considerable amount on steals, and unfortunately there really isn’t a good metric for measuring how successful a steal is when attempted, or the completion ratio for steals, primarily because it’s hard to judge what counts exactly as a “steal attempt.” Regardless, gambling heavily on steals can leave one open for punishment.
It would appear that this last point is exacerbated by the fact that a number of Allen’s steals are interceptions. This kind of ball-watching can wreck a defense if improperly handled, and in theory could be exploited by Big Ten offenses that are used to operating in halfcourt settings.
While it’ll be interesting to see how Allen’s steal production fluctuates throughout the season, significant question marks ought to be raised over just how much Nebraska should let him chase the ball. With all this being said, it still shouldn’t detract from the fact that Allen, who was considered mostly to be a primary scorer and secondary ball-handler who would conserve most of his energy for the offense, has proven himself early to be one of the more valuable parts of a steal-heavy defense.
It’s reductionary to imply that defense can be readily externalized to a few measurable actions (rebounds, steals, blocks etc.), but early on, Nebraska’s overall defensive efficiency has outpaced expectations on the season. While the Huskers ranked just outside the top 100 to start the 2020-21 season, the Nebraska defense now ranks 95th in the nation.
Of course, there’s the asterisk that one of the opponents was McNeese State, which possessed a below-average offense last season, but both Nevada and North Dakota State were high-efficiency teams. North Dakota State was 91st in the nation while Nevada was a very impressive 44th, and while adjusted offensive efficiency doesn’t account for relative strength of schedule, these are still very impressive metrics for Nebraska to have weathered.
At the start of the season, kenpom.com predicted that Nebraska would be a more defense-dependent team, and also projected its defense to be better relatively than its offense. Through three games, this has proven to be generally true.
Nebraska’s 3-point distribution is a question mark
Last season, Nebraska had a 3-point distribution of about 39.6%. This means that 39.6% of Nebraska’s shots were three-pointers. After three games, that metric has jumped up to 49.2%. Surprisingly, this isn’t high enough to be first in the nation, instead currently only being 21st.
This 3-point distribution, however, shouldn’t be taken as a sign of things to come. In 2012-2013, with the greatest volume of 3-pointers at Iowa State, Hoiberg’s team still only shot 43.8% 3-pointers. While Hoiberg is a known advocate for the 3-point shot, this new percentage over three games is probably an anomaly.
One big reason for this is that the Nevada game, where Hoiberg’s offense was fundamentally stifled, registered a 3-point distribution of 66%. This pushes upwards the more modest 50% and 33% of the South Dakota State and McNeese games, respectively. Even then, the South Dakota State game was another example where perhaps Hoiberg’s offense was shooting more 3-pointers than would otherwise be preferred, given that Nebraska shot a rather paltry 28.1% on those threes. One of Hoiberg’s biggest points of emphasis is to shoot shots that are going in.
This is where philosophy intersects roughly with praxis. It’s hard to diagnose whether the high 49.2% is a sign of things to come from Hoiberg’s team acting perfectly, or a byproduct of the team not playing up to standards. While his Iowa State team was in general a bit more conservative in 3-point shooting, it’s also noteworthy that they played in a slightly different era, where the 43.8% distribution was one of the highest in the nation. How a team is currently operating is no basis necessarily in how it ought to operate according to the coach, and this team is no different.
Nebraska’s MVP from the Golden Window Classic
If there were an MVP from the Golden Window Classic from Nebraska, one strong contender would be Allen. His free-throw scoring against Nevada, great steal production, and overall scoring touch were on full display throughout the tournament and should not be ignored.
However, the best option for Nebraska would probably be sophomore guard Dalano Banton. There were some question marks over Banton going into the season. In an earlier Nebraskalytics, the concern was raised that Hoiberg wouldn’t commit to using Banton in his primary ball-handling capacity, instead mis-applying him to the mold of a forward with some ball-handling ability.
Thankfully for the Huskers, Hoiberg has committed fully to the Banton experiment. The guard was allowed to fully initiate the offense, producing the 40th-highest assist rate in the nation on 24.8% possession rate (kenpom.com’s own spin on usage rate) and also displayed his rather exceptional rebounding rate in full, leading the Huskers in this regard.
Going into the season, the Huskers needed more rebounding ability, some more production around the rim and a replacement for guard Cam Mack — who averaged one of the highest assist to turnover ratios in the Big Ten last year. Somehow, the Huskers were able to find all three of these essential qualities all wrapped into one in Banton.
Sometimes, stat-stuffing players can reveal some worrying tendencies in their advanced analytics, one of the big ones being wastefulness (ahem, Russell Westbrook). At some point, the offensive load that’s required by stuffing a player full of offensive possessions isn’t quite worth it when balancing that against diminishing returns. Sometimes, the offensive production would be better utilized elsewhere.
In the case of Banton, it would appear that a usage rate of around 25% is just about right for him. When he took on higher usage against Nevada, his production collapsed, shooting only 6-of-17 overall. And while Nevada was uniquely predisposed to stuffing some of Banton’s abilities, it should be noted that the elite big men of the Big Ten will not easily give him chances. In the end, every player has an ideal usage rate and for Banton, it being around 25% still bodes very well for the Huskers and Hoiberg.