Nebraska assistant coach Doc Sadler is the head of Nebraska’s defense, and his defense runs counter to head coach Fred Hoiberg’s philosophy.
“The national average last year was 7.9 or 7.8 made [3-pointers] a game. So 22 were shot a game,” Sadler said to the Omaha World-Herald. “So, people think 3-pointers beat you, but that’s not what beats you.”
This quote shows a fundamental philosophical problem in Sadler’s philosophy which he is using to shape Nebraska’s defense. Sadler’s defense is built on preventing points and limiting efficiency in the paint for opposing teams. The goal is to let the other team only take 3-pointers and midrange shots. Hoiberg, who values the 3-point shot, has trusted Sadler and his philosophy. Nebraska, so far, has done this with varying success.
The way Nebraska does this is through building a wall. This is the term given to a style of defense which focuses almost exclusively on denying any post entries, whether they are drives or passes into a center or forward. To this end, Nebraska switches and rotates its defensive marks at a high frequency.
There’s benefits to this, but it can also mean players becoming lost in the shuffle of a half-court offensive set. Watch junior guard Jervay Green on this open 3-pointer:
Notice that it was Green who loses his man, No. 22 for UC Riverside, and floats in the lane waiting for a man to pick up and defend.
Against UC Riverside, the Huskers forced the Highlanders to shoot 11-29 in the paint, good for 38% and an expected value of .75 points per shot in the paint.
And yet, Nebraska lost in spectacular fashion. The reason why is UC Riverside’s 12-25 3-point shooting, good for 48% and an expected value of 1.44 points per shot. The issue is that giving teams free-reign from the 3-point line while cutting off the paint will be gladly welcomed by teams who can shoot the 3-pointer efficiently.
While the national average of 3-point shots per game is 22, giving teams the ability to shoot more 3-pointers will mean that they will shoot more 3-pointers. And saying that because the national average is 22 per game, each team Nebraska goes up against will shoot 22 per game is a misnomer. That average is calculated from a totality of teams, many of which defend the 3-point line and discourage the 3-point shot.
Allowing a team to take as many 3-pointers will naturally increase the number of 3-pointers it takes. And, generally, it helps the opposing team find better, more efficient shots on the perimeter. The 7.9 made 3-pointers per game is based on both contested and open 3-pointers, and not contesting or barely contesting 3-pointers means that the number made will increase.
While some may say that UC Riverside’s 48% shooting from the 3-point line is unsustainable, and as a result bad luck for Nebraska, the Huskers were in part asking for it. There’s a number of reasons why. First, Nebraska only contested two of UC Riverside’s 25 3-pointers. Second, as UC Riverside made six 3-pointers in the first 10 minutes of the second half, Nebraska seemed content in letting it continue trying the hot 3-pointer.
Sadler taught the players to not feel demoralized by a made 3-pointer or even a few made 3-pointers. Basketball is a game of runs and these things happen. This helps to develop the team’s resolve mentally. However, teaching the team to give up the 3-pointer whenever, and that it’s a preferable option to do so, is a flaw. UC Riverside demonstrated that.
It’s important to note that after the UC Riverside game, Sadler refined his defense to start defending the 3-pointer. His defense is still predicated, partly, on preventing easy points in the paint, but that by no means prevents a defense from also covering the perimeter.
Against Southern Utah, the Huskers were less successful in preventing shots in the paint, allowing the Thunderbirds to go 24-44 inside. This is a 54% field goal percentage with an expected value of 1.09 points per shot. However, Nebraska forced the game to double overtime and almost escaped with a victory. A big factor in that result is that Southern Utah was forced to shoot 4-23 from the 3-point line, good for only 17.4% efficiency and .522 points per shot.
Nebraska wasn’t perfect in defending the 3-point shot. For example, this confusion from a screen results in a near-open 3-point shot here:
In this next play, though, Cam Mack plays help defense, pressures the ball-handler and contests the eventual 3-point shot:
Finally, South Dakota State represented an oddity in that Sadler’s defensive philosophy was uniquely predisposed to deal with South Dakota State’s offense. While South Dakota State values the 3-point shot, as 36.5% of its shots are 3-pointers, its offense is partly predicated on the drives of junior forward Doug Wilson. Nebraska’s defense was tailor-made to stop these kinds of players, and as a result muted Wilson’s effect throughout the game.
Here’s an example of terrific, action-filled defense from the team in the game against South Dakota State:
The South Dakota State game shows that focusing on defending in the paint is not necessarily a foolhardy endeavor. However, focusing so exclusively on defending in the paint, without paying much mind to the 3-point shot, is an error in logic. So far, it appears that Nebraska has made significant steps to correct this error, creating a more balanced and stout defense.