Nebraska men’s basketball’s last two games have presented an alternative to how head coach Fred Hoiberg's team has normally fared in losses against high-level competition this season.
Against Michigan on Christmas, the Huskers found themselves in the midst of yet another second-half collapse. The Huskers cut Michigan’s advantage to 43-41 with 16:41 remaining, but the Wolverines raced out to a double-digit advantage on multiple occasions over the next five minutes — the high mark being a 62-49 lead with 11:11 to play.
Instead of folding and accepting defeat, which had been standard for Nebraska when faced with such a situation, it responded. Junior guard Trey McGowens helped cut Michigan’s lead to five, but the Wolverines ultimately pulled away for an 80-69 victory.
The result may have been the same, but it was a nice change of pace from earlier defeats to Wisconsin, Creighton and Georgia Tech. In those games, Nebraska failed to respond to big second-half deficits and instead rolled over and accepted defeat.
On Wednesday night against No. 25 Ohio State, Nebraska didn’t even wait until the second half to completely collapse. Despite what the 90-54 final score may suggest, there was a point in time in which Nebraska was competitive against the Buckeyes.
A 3-pointer from junior guard Teddy Allen tied Wednesday night’s game at 13 with 13:15 remaining in the first half. At that point, such a scoreline was deserved. Nebraska’s offense was playing with pace, moving the ball quickly and generating easy looks at the basket.
Nebraska had early struggles defending Ohio State in the paint early on, but the Huskers only trailed 15-13 at the under-12 media timeout. Hoiberg’s bunch had shown enough of a reason to believe that they could play a complete 40 minutes against a conference opponent for the first time this season.
Only the exact opposite happened.
“I saw a ton of energy from our players early in the game, I thought we missed some really good shots in those first 10 minutes,” Hoiberg said postgame. “That kind of set the tone for the game as it wore on, I think it affected us on the other end and then [Ohio State] overwhelmed us with their physicality.”
Allen’s shot marked Nebraska’s last points for nearly a six-minute stretch, as the Buckeyes manhandled their way to a 15-0 run. Ohio State, which hadn’t made a 3-pointer until that stretch, made three during the course of the run to help grow the lead. One free throw from junior guard Shamiel Stevenson and two from junior forward Lat Mayen helped keep the Huskers at a respectable distance, down 12 with 6:30 remaining in the first half, but things continued to spiral from there.
The Buckeyes weren’t necessarily world-beaters on the offensive end in the opening 20 minutes, either. Ohio State shot 49% from the field and 37% from 3-point range. While both are above average metrics, it should not have meant that Nebraska would be facing a nearly insurmountable deficit at halftime.
Enter Nebraska’s first half horrors: an over 10-minute field goal drought, a combined 3-of-15 shooting from Allen and sophomore guard Dalano Banton and a 20% shooting performance from the field as a team. A once-tied game was now a 38-21 Buckeye advantage as both teams headed into the locker room.
As has been the case when Nebraska loses games, the wheels fell off on the offensive end. The ball stopped moving and Nebraska started taking ill-advised shots. Hoiberg’s offensive scheme based around efficiency, speed and movement was nearly unrecognizable.
Once again, Nebraska’s players failed to execute when the going got rough. The going got even rougher in the second half. A McGowens and-one on Nebraska’s first offensive possession of the final 20 minutes could’ve sparked some optimism for a second-half rally. Instead, Ohio State followed by going on a 30-5 run, putting the game out of reach.
It’s hard to identify what exactly Nebraska’s mindset is when its offense struggles for such long periods in a game. Hoiberg chalked it up to “trying to do too much,” a result of players trying to make winning plays but it ultimately backfiring. Sophomore forward Yvan Ouedraogo said postgame that Nebraska’s offensive woes stem from a lack of belief.
“I thought we were competing very well in the Michigan game for the most part, and for a lot of the Wisconsin and Creighton games for that matter,” Hoiberg said. “We’re hitting that stretch in pretty much every game where the wheels fall off, and we’ve got to find a way to fix it.”
Whatever the reason, offensive inconsistencies turned Wednesday’s game into a laugher, the worst loss by point differential not only in Hoiberg’s time at Nebraska, but in his entire collegiate playing or coaching career. It’s not often that there are next to no positives about a team’s performance but, aside from Nebraska’s competitive start, there aren’t any.
Nebraska finished the blowout loss with just three assists to 15 turnovers, with Allen’s 13 points leading the team. The Huskers shot 28.3% from the floor. The Buckeyes were led by junior forward Justin Ahrens’ blistering 18-point, 6-of-9 from 3-point range effort, along with 14 points on 5-of-5 shooting by freshman forward Zed Key.
A common theme in the postgame press conference was “trust.” When an offense, or team, performs this poorly, the first line of thought usually is something along the lines of the players not having enough confidence in each other to make a play when met with adversity.
“I definitely think that we trust each other but we seem like a new team, a new group. The other teams in the Big Ten have been together for four or five years, we’re really just new,” Ouedraogo said. “I feel like we’re building camaraderie and all, but the fact that we’re losing and everything is maybe making some people lose confidence in themselves.”
A silver lining is that this could end up being the low point of a few-week stretch of inconsistent play for Nebraska. But, with the immense quality of the Big Ten, the Huskers may not get a respite anytime soon.
Nebraska faces another winless conference foe on Jan. 2, but unfortunately it’s No. 17 Michigan State. The Huskers must figure out a way to cure these woes and use Wednesday night’s game as a rallying point, or else things could get a whole lot worse before they get any better.