Considering what counts as a “good” or “bad” performance can be a complicated matter if one wants to make it so. It would be easy to state, for example, that Nebraska’s victory over Iowa and loss to Creighton would count as Nebraska’s best and worst performances, respectively, last season. The former due to the quality of the opponent, and the latter a function of how it happened.
However, judging the results in this way is unsophisticated. It doesn’t measure the completeness of the performance. In Nebraska’s win over Iowa, the Huskers shot 53.8% from the free-throw line and was significantly assisted by a torrid shooting night from Iowa, which only hit 12.1% of its 3-point shots. For a team with an average 3-point percentage of 34.7%, this performance cannot necessarily be accounted for by good Nebraska defense, and as a result, Iowa shot itself in the foot, largely.
Furthermore, the loss to Creighton was more or less expected from a team that matched against Nebraska well and had more obvious talent on its roster. The duo of sophomore guard Marcus Zegarowski and junior guard Ty-Shon Alexander was perfectly tailored to nullify and exploit Nebraska.
With this in mind, the best game will be judged by the completeness of the performance displayed, and not necessarily the result. At the same time, opposition team strength will be factored into the worst performance debate. But first, an honorable mention.
(Dis)Honorable Mention: UC Riverside 66-47 Nebraska
Pinnacle Bank Arena was eerily quiet at the start of the Hoiberg era, as a second half 3-point barrage from UC Riverside, a bad team, introduced the Huskers to their new season. This was a poor performance all around from the Huskers. At the start of the season, assistant coach Doc Sadler stated his desire to defend from the paint first and foremost, but this philosophy helped to lead Nebraska to concede more 3-pointers than 2-pointers against UC Riverside. This defensive scheme was subsequently adapted to be more balanced overall, which should speak volumes to the problems UC Riverside unmasked.
The reason why this isn’t a clear pick for the worst performance is because of context. This was Nebraska’s first competitive game as a team and functionally nobody had played with each other before. On top of that, Sadler had to work out his new system and Hoiberg was still trying to engrain his offense into the team. While a bad loss, there are reasons to rationalize it to a greater extent than some of the other losses on the list.
While one may very reasonably say that the quality of UC Riverside necessitates this be Nebraska’s worst performance, it would almost feel like cheating choosing this game. Therefore, it will remain an honorable mention.
Worst Performance: Nebraska 57-62 Northwestern
Following a delightful win against Iowa, Nebraska had momentum and many quietly predicted Nebraska to come out favorites against the Wildcats. At the same time, Nebraska had generally been able to overwhelm slower teams, and Northwestern was one of the slowest. Northwestern also was on a five-game losing streak, and would not win for another 12 games after beating Nebraska.
The score, ultimately, doesn’t communicate Northwestern’s domination over Nebraska in the first half, outscoring the Huskers 42-27. And the unfortunate part of this scoreline is that, for the game, Northwestern underperformed its average 2-point field goal percentage. On 2-pointers, Northwestern averaged 46.9% on the season and only shot 44.1% against Nebraska. For 3-pointers, it shot slightly better than its average at 34.5% against a normal of 31.2%.
It’s possible that Nebraska regressed into a defend-the-paint style defense for the game against Northwestern. For the season, the Wildcats had a 3-point frequency of 33.9%. This means 33.9% of all Northwestern field goal attempts were 3-pointers. However, against Nebraska, 46% of Northwestern’s shots were 3-pointers and it converted those at a high enough rate to sink the Huskers. Nebraska also played at a pace below usual. Northwestern’s adjusted tempo was 66.7 possessions while Nebraska’s was 73.1 possessions. For the game between the two, the number of possessions was 69.
With this being said, Northwestern simply didn’t play well against the Huskers. It was the Huskers who failed to carry momentum from the Iowa result, only shooting 32.4% on 2-point field goal attempts all game. Nebraska also underperformed its average 3-point percentage, though only by a percentage point.
These problems can’t be put down to Northwestern’s defense either. Despite being an upper-third 2-point field goal percentage team defensively, it’s also fairly poor at guarding the 3-pointer. And Nebraska’s poor 3-point shooting performance isn’t necessarily due to small sample size as the Huskers took 30 shots from behind the arc.
This game also started the losing streak that plagued the Huskers for the rest of the season. The Huskers’ last victory was in January against Iowa. Playing so poorly against a team that many circled long in advance as a possible victory for the Huskers appeared to demoralize the young team greatly. Northwestern didn’t fare much better with only two more victories after beating the Huskers. One of those came against Penn State and the other was the return game against Nebraska at Pinnacle Bank Arena.
It is shortsighted to say that Nebraska’s season would’ve turned out wildly different should it have beaten Northwestern. It’s also unfair to say that Northwestern was Nebraska’s doomsday, but the manner of the loss against the Wildcats proved that the Iowa game was an anomaly. It indicated that the season’s downward trajectory couldn’t be changed by one good result or one valiant comeback. A disappointing realization but a necessary one.
Best Performance: Indiana 96-90 Nebraska (OT)
It may be strange to put a loss as the best Nebraska performance, but coming off the loss to Creighton and going straight into the first Big Ten game of the season against one of the conference’s better teams, things weren’t looking great for Nebraska. Also, the game was in Bloomington, Indiana, home to one of the Big Ten’s toughest stadiums. Nobody would blame the Huskers if they were beaten by the opposition with ease.
However, that didn’t happen, and one can argue that Nebraska was slightly hard-done to not end up beating the Hoosiers, as strange as that is to say. One of the Huskers’ biggest faults last season was collapsing after giving up big runs. The most immediate solution to this would be to not give up big runs. Against Indiana, the Huskers never fell 10 points behind.
The game against Indiana also showed the possibilities that both junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. and senior guard Haanif Cheatham could bring to a game. Unfortunately, there’s a case to be made that both Burke and Cheatham didn’t have a better game after this performance, but that’s not to take away from their showings against Indiana.
Burke, who was an inconsistent shooter for the Huskers, came up big from deep, shooting 4-8 from the 3-point line and hitting the buzzer-beater to force overtime. This helped to factor into a 9-16 shooting night from the field, good for 25 points — one of his highest totals on the season. Burke showed all of the tricks in his scoring playbook, proving why Hoiberg put faith in him in the first place.
Cheatham, on the other hand, showed a scoring touch around the rim that had been lacking for most of the season before and afterwards. Shooting 7-15 from the field, Cheatham accrued 21 points and also sank two clutch free throws near the end of regulation in order to keep the game close.
Free throws were not a strong point for Nebraska last season. However, against Indiana, the Huskers hit two-thirds of their attempts from the charity stripe, which is also one of their best performances last season.
Besides all that, the most admirable part of Nebraska’s game against Indiana was how it didn’t compromise its core offensive or defensive philosophy in order to achieve a decent result. The 3-point frequency for both Nebraska and Indiana fell within a margin of error for Nebraska’s average. Assuming that Hoiberg was playing a style of basketball that he liked last season, Nebraska’s performance against Indiana shows the ideal type for Hoiberg, a benchmark performance to measure future progress against. In this sense, last season was no disaster for Hoiberg, and learning from it is likely.