Nebraska basketball is in desperate need of consistency, and it will have a fantastic opportunity to iron out some of the early-season kinks with three games in three days this week at the Cayman Islands Classic.
The Huskers enter the trip at 2-2, a slow start that many predicted would befall first-year head coach Fred Hoiberg as he attempts to unite a roster comprised of transfers and junior-college products. What is concerning, though, is the fact that Nebraska has been unable to put together a complete performance from start to finish.
Sometimes the victim is poor defensive play, like the UC Riverside loss and the second half of the South Dakota State game. Other times, long offensive droughts are the culprit, droughts that occurred in Nebraska’s overtime loss to Southern Utah. Or, the Huskers get manhandled on the glass, like in Friday night’s game against Southern.
The Huskers will have a great opportunity to build some consistency in their first game in the Cayman Islands against Washington State—a fellow Power Five school in a transition year.
First-year head coach Kyle Smith inherits a Cougars squad that went 11-21 last season and currently sits at 2-2. They also are currently the No. 150 team in the country according to kenpom.com. Like Nebraska, the Cougars have been inconsistent, handling Seattle and Idaho State, but falling to Santa Clara and Omaha.
Containing sophomore forward CJ Elleby will be vital if Nebraska is to have success against Washington State. The 6-foot-6 Seattle native averages 21 points per game and 6.5 rebounds per game. The Cougars like to run their offense through Elleby, and when he isn’t getting his open looks, Washington State’s offense sputters.
Washington State, like Nebraska, does not rebound the ball well. The Cougars average 38 rebounds per game, while the Huskers average 36. If Nebraska can find an advantage on the boards, it will have success on Monday.
Nebraska’s next matchup would be against either George Mason (5-1) or Old Dominion (3-2). Old Dominion, an NCAA Tournament team last year, is led by junior guard Xavier Green (17.0 points per game, 5.8 rebounds per game). Unlike Nebraska, the Monarchs rebound the ball well, with an average of 42.4 rebounds per game, the 29th-best mark in the country.
George Mason enters the Cayman Islands fresh off of its first loss of the season, an 86-63 loss to No. 6 Maryland on Nov. 22 that was closer than the score indicated. The Patriots boast a balanced offensive attack, with four players averaging double-figure scoring.
On the other end of the bracket, New Mexico State (2-3) will battle Colorado State (3-2) in the first contest of the tournament on Monday morning. New Mexico State is the class of the Western Athletic Conference, appearing in eight of the last 10 NCAA Tournaments and nearly beating Final Four participant Auburn in the opening weekend of the 2019 tournament.
The Aggies are off to a slow start this year and enter the Cayman Islands on a two-game losing streak. New Mexico State’s last victory came against Southern, handling the Jaguars in a 79-63 victory. The Aggies are a guard-driven squad, with senior guard Trevelin Queen and sophomore guard Jabari Rice leading the team in scoring with 18 and 10.6 points per game, respectively.
Colorado State presents the biggest matchup problem for Nebraska should the two meet, as the Rams are led by one of the best rebounding big men in college basketball. Talented 6-foot-11 senior center Nico Carvacho enters the tournament averaging 14.8 points per game and 10.2 rebounds per game. In addition to Carvacho, three Rams average double-figure scoring totals.
The final pairing of the bracket is Loyola Chicago (3-2) and South Florida (2-2). Loyola Chicago is led by two role players from the 2018 Final Four squad, juniors Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson. Krutwig, a 6-foot-9 center, averages 16.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. Williamson, a guard, averages 14 points per game.
Loyola Chicago is one of the best shooting teams in the country, with a 53.6% field goal percentage that is the fifth-best mark in Division I.
South Florida comes to the Cayman Islands after alternating wins and losses this season. The Bulls’ offense is atrocious, averaging 63 points per game which is the 308th-best mark in the country. Junior guard David Collins leads the USF offense with 14.5 points per game, and senior guard Laquincy Rideau averages 12.5 points per game.
USF also doesn’t rebound the ball well, with an average of 33 rebounds per game. That total is No. 293 in Division I.
Play at John Gray Gymnasium starts on Monday morning, and games will stream on flohoops.com. Nebraska’s first game is at 6:30 p.m.