Nebraska basketball has seen a noticeable trend in recent Big Ten Conference games this year. If Nebraska is playing against a team that plays like it does — high-paced, energetic and eager to get the ball out in transition — it generally plays well. The game against Iowa is a key example of this, though it should be noted the volume of 3-pointers missed by the Hawkeyes in that game.
That being said, Nebraska is largely inconsistent against teams with a stout defensive presence in the post and an offense that does its best to strangle the game and limit early offensive possessions. A key example of this came against Rutgers, where Nebraska faced the 13th-best defensive team in the nation per kenpom.com’s adjusted defense metric. Rutgers also plays at a slightly below-average pace of 68.7 possessions per 40 minutes, which is eighth in the Big Ten. In the game against Rutgers, Nebraska was kept to 8-31 shooting from behind the 3-point line and was only able to convert six fastbreak points. Much of this came down to Rutgers’ dominance in the post. With a strong rebounding performance from the versatile defending wing sophomore Ron Harper Jr., the Huskers were slowly squeezed out of the game.
This may be expected again against Ohio State, as the offensive profiles of the two teams are similar in distinct ways. First, Ohio State plays slower than Rutgers, which works to its advantage against Nebraska. When playing slower on offense and more conservatively, one can, in theory, better spring into active defense in the transition or, ideally, not give up the opportunity for a transition layup in the first place. Ohio State, with the ninth-best defensive rating in the country, is able to do this.
Defending against Nebraska’s most-favored attack is all well and good, but a team also has to score points to win. No matter its defensive solidity, there will always be baskets given up in transition if the opposing team wishes to push the pace. It serves Ohio State well that it’s a strong offensive team in its long possessions, boasting an offensive rating of No. 26 in the country.
Junior center Kaleb Wesson is a kind of embodiment of Ohio State’s two-way flexibility. The top scorer on the team with 14.5 points per game, Wesson is rated higher defensively in box plus-minus than he is offensively, partly due to a jump in his blocks per game, up to 1.2 from .7 in the previous year.
Freshman guard D.J. Carton offers more scoring off the bench, being the Buckeyes third-leading scorer despite averaging less minutes than three of the Buckeyes’ starters. His energy will come invaluable early in the game, maybe around the five- to 10-minute mark, where Nebraska’s backup unit has been lacking at times. Freshman guard Charlie Easley, who was recently offered a scholarship by the Huskers, will most likely be assigned to guard Carton, who will give him a tough game.
This all being said, there is hope for the Huskers. Ohio State is currently 1-4 in conference play, tied for last with Northwestern. Granted, Ohio State lost to Wisconsin, Maryland and Indiana, all three of which have at most six losses on the season. Its loss to Minnesota, a relatively ordinary team in the Big Ten, may raise some eyebrows, and the Huskers will look to capitalize on the Buckeyes’ weak run. On Saturday, it plays Penn State, one of the best teams in the Big Ten. If Ohio State is caught more concerned with that game than Nebraska, there may be some early drowsiness from the home team.
Furthermore, while Nebraska generally plays poorly against low-paced defensive teams, it beat Purdue. Purdue boasts a better defensive rating than Ohio State, ranked seventh in the country to Ohio State’s ninth, and also has an efficient offense, ranked 58th in the nation relative to Ohio State’s 26th. Nebraska’s victory over Purdue came down to getting in transition early, scoring 17 points on the fastbreak throughout the game and eight in the first half. Nebraska also shot 36.7%from the 3-point line while Purdue shot 17.1%.
And this leads to a further extrapolation, that Nebraska wins more games when its opponent shoots the 3-pointer poorly. An obvious analysis, for sure, but a relevant one. Assistant coach Doc Sadler announced his intention to guard the paint first early in the season, operating on the notion that 3-pointers do not make up a majority of a team’s points. However, Nebraska has won when its opponents shoot poor from the 3-point line, seen by Iowa shooting only 12.1% from the 3-point line and Indiana shooting only 20% from the 3-point line in a close Nebraska loss. In the game against Purdue, the Boilermakers scored 32 points in the paint but couldn’t overcome a poor shooting performance.
These trends indicate that Nebraska has an ability to win games against slower opposition if that opposition can’t make its shots. Forcing a team to shoot poorly is an odd skill to have and requires both tenacity and a bit of luck. Yet, Nebraska was already able to pull off two victories against stronger, heavily favored teams, and that luck may still be with it come Tuesday in Columbus.