Leather bouncing rhythmically on polished wood, sneakers squeaking on dry floor and the sight of Nebraska men’s basketball head coach Fred Hoiberg pacing quietly on the sideline. The cold open for season two of Nebraska basketball under Hoiberg starts on Nov. 25 at Pinnacle Bank Arena and Bob Devaney Sports Center, with the Huskers taking on a yet-to-be-determined selection from a pool of seven teams — an event dubbed the Golden Window Classic.
Hoiberg’s first season was marked with disappointment, yet that’s not quite the right word. Disappointment implies expectation, and a roster constructed in 30 days ought not inspire expectation in anyone. Still, a 7-25 record is not the triumph Hoiberg hoped for in his first season.
Now, another complete roster overhaul later, expectations around the Huskers are mixed once again. Though, most outlets seem to at least project improvement over last season. College Hoops Today writer Jon Rothstein said Nebraska should be vastly improved going into next season.
“Eight of the Cornhuskers’ 13 scholarship players are transfers,” Rothstein said. “Sound familiar? Just like he did at Iowa State, Fred Hoiberg is counting on imports from other programs to move the needle in Lincoln.”
This comparison might be a bit hyperbolic. Hoiberg’s Iowa State team in its second season did make it to the NCAA Tournament, and was also helped by NBA-caliber talent like the prototypical point forward Royce White. Also, Hoiberg’s Iowa State was significantly better in its first season than the Nebraska counterpart. But the prediction is ambitious, at least.
Another key college basketball voice, the statistics database kenpom.com, released its first projections for the new season, and they also indicate improvement in Lincoln. The Huskers are by far the worst team in the Big Ten according to adjusted efficiency margin. This stat measures the point differential between adjusted offense and adjusted defense, so in theory, the teams with the highest adjusted efficiency margin will perform the best.
This isn’t to say the Huskers are worse off than last year, however. At the end of the season last year, the Huskers were at an adjusted efficiency margin of .64, with a 102.0 adjusted offense and 101.3 adjusted defense. This year, Nebraska’s offense is expected to be worse according to Kenpom with a rating of 100.5, but its defense is also projected to be far better at 95.8, which results in an adjusted efficiency margin of 4.68.
A key narrative heading into the Golden Window Classic will be whether or not Nebraska’s defense will be able to live up to this new metric. While by no means a fantastic improvement, a five-point differential in adjusted efficiency can really help teams out in the aggregate, especially when playing out-of-conference teams like Nebraska will in the tournament.
The new defensive rating, in general, makes sense. While assistant coach Doc Sadler’s defense started shaky, a focus on perimeter defense later in the season led to the Huskers having an above average opponent 3-point. Kenpom, last season, ranked Nebraska as a more defense-dependent team, though part of this is due to the lack of rhythm for the team generally on offense.
Nebraska’s new transfers have a high defensive ceiling, higher than the likes of forward Kevin Cross, guard Cam Mack or even defensive specialist guard Haanif Cheatham from a year ago. Junior guard Trey McGowens averaged a defensive box plus-minus of 2.8 over his two-year career at Pitt, partly buoyed by his fantastic steal percentage of 3.5% — good for 64th in the nation.
In his one year at TCU, junior forward Lat Mayen was another competent defensive piece, with a defensive box plus-minus of 2.8. He only played 8.9% of all available minutes for the Horned Frogs in 2018-19, however block and steal percentages of 3.2 and 1.7, respectively, show some active defensive ability.
Of course, defense should not be reduced to steals or blocks, but these two players are expected to play significant minutes for the Huskers and have shown good ability on this end of the floor. If Nebraska is to improve, it will primarily be here.
An interesting litmus test for the defense, then, would be the likes of the LSU Tigers, who Nebraska could play during the tournament. LSU has the seventh-highest adjusted offensive efficiency according to Kenpom, and is expected to lean on an above-average tempo.
High tempo teams normally rely on the 3-point shot. This is partly because it’s easier to get a 3-point shot off in a shorter time span, and analytics-minded coaches typically prefer the 3-pointer. This isn’t the case for LSU, at least assuming trends from last season stay constant. LSU only had a 3-point shot frequency of 34.3% last season, very low relative to NCAA basketball.
Instead, LSU focused on dominating around the rim. Sophomore forward Trendon Watford shot 54.7% on 2-pointers on 21.8% shot percentage, which measures the total percentage of shots a particular player accounted for. LSU is losing an offensive powerhouse in guard Skylar Mays, who ranked 72nd in the nation in offensive rating, but the likes of junior guard Javonte Smart may be able to fill his role somewhat.
Another place where LSU excels is offensive rebounding. The Tigers had the 15th-best offensive rebounding rate in the country last season, significantly buoyed by junior forward Darius Days and Watford. Though, another significant piece in LSU’s rebounding machine, forward Emmitt Williams, declared for the draft and left the program.
Nebraska was terrible at rebounding last season. In modern basketball analytics, rebounding as a stat for judging just about anything has been mostly thrown out the window. This is because most teams are about as good as each other at rebounding generally and it’s hard to move the needle through it. But, Nebraska was so bad at rebounding last season that it would sink them, ranking 335th in the nation for opponent offensive rebounding rate.
The big reason for this was Hoiberg’s use of a four-guard system with only one dedicated big man, but even then, that big man was nowhere near a traditional center and was more of a forward.
While, in theory, one could see something as unique and fun as last season’s Houston Rockets out of this system, it hurt Hoiberg in the rebounding department and was probably mostly used out of necessity. For larger, more rebounding-oriented forwards on the roster, the Huskers arguably only had one, maybe two if you stretched forward Kevin Cross to that station.
This season, Nebraska has a now-sophomore forward in Yvan Ouedraogo, an experienced veteran in junior forward Derrick Walker and a dedicated center in freshman Eduardo Andre. While Andre’s role may be limited, Walker and Ouedraogo are expected to play significant minutes for the Huskers.
This is what makes the potential of an LSU matchup so interesting. Not necessarily any real chance of a Husker victory, that’s dubious at best, but the chance to compare one’s own attributes to the highest competition. Looking out for LSU’s offensive rebounding and its interior presence will indicate whether or not Nebraska’s perimeter defense can match up against the Big Ten’s elite big men next season, where the quality will be similar.
However, LSU is not a perfect metonym for Big Ten opposition, primarily because the Big Ten is a notoriously slow conference. Kenpom estimates that only three Big Ten teams will have top 100 adjusted tempos for the new season, with many in the bottom third for adjusted tempo. Playing slow doesn’t necessarily mean bad, of course, but it’d be interesting to see how Nebraska matches up against slower opposition.
Enter Missouri Valley Conference power Northern Iowa. The Panthers are relatively similar in efficiency ratings to the Huskers, though it possesses a far better offense at 105.1 to Nebraska’s 100.5. The way in which Northern Iowa achieves this efficiency, however, is far different, with an expected tempo 20th from last in college basketball.
While, in theory, choking the game against Nebraska wouldn’t work due to the tendency of high-pace teams to break out into runs, this didn’t happen for Nebraska last season. The Huskers only won two Big Ten games last season, and it’s important to note that one of those two was the high-pace Iowa Hawkeyes.
While one finds that low-pace teams also generally have worse offenses, Northern Iowa was certainly not that way last season, possessing the 23rd-best offense in the nation. Part of this is due to playing in the relatively pedestrian Missouri Valley Conference, but head coach Ben Jacobson’s side was able to notch an impressive victory against Colorado.
Northern Iowa excels in the 3-point shot, with an outstanding 38.6% completion rate on 41.4% frequency. This high of a 3-point load on that high of a completion rate is not common, and it helped propel the Panthers to a fantastic offense.
A fairly comparable Big Ten example last season would be Ohio State, who had a similar 37.3% completion rate on 41.4% frequency. Ohio State, too, is projected to have a low adjusted tempo this season of 70.5 possessions per 100, which is ranked 288th in college basketball. The archetype of a slow, really good 3-point shooting team is not uncommon in the Big Ten.
The Golden Window Classic serves a few interesting functions. First, it brings in some income, which can’t be ignored. And second, it provides an interesting cross-section of possible team archetypes which Nebraska will almost certainly play in the upcoming season.
This is definitely why the Huskers invited the likes of Northern Iowa and LSU, both teams who have significant Big Ten analogues. What this new setting also allows for is a spirit of creativity and innovation within the Husker lineup or scheming which may have been completely absent in more important Big Ten games.