The Nebraska men’s basketball team continues to aimlessly wander the ever-competitive realm of the Big Ten with no positive end result in sight.
Things haven’t been pretty for head coach Fred Hoiberg’s team following their three-week COVID-19 pause, but Nebraska hasn’t looked as poor as it did in Wednesday night’s 61-48 loss to Wisconsin. The Huskers seem to be regressing offensively, and regressing quickly. Nebraska looked out-of-sync for large stretches in 56-point and 61-point performances in losses to Michigan State and Minnesota, respectively, but Monday night was a different animal.
It didn’t start that way, though.
Nebraska appeared to have made a significant change from its anemic offensive start to its first matchup with the Badgers, a December 2020 matchup in which the Huskers had 10 points nearly 12 minutes into the game. Thanks to early heroics from junior forward Lat Mayen, Nebraska achieved that score barrier in less than half that time.
Mayen had half of Nebraska’s first 20 points on 4-of-5 shooting, helping Nebraska take a surprising 20-14 lead over Wisconsin with 12:07 remaining in the first half. Even better, all eight of Nebraska’s first field goals were assisted. From there, things fell apart quickly.
Over the final 12 minutes of the first half, Nebraska had over four times as many turnovers as made field goals and looked completely uninspired offensively. Wisconsin’s pace and style of play can be challenging for opposing coaches to manage and find success against, but the Huskers proved incapable of running any consistent offense from the 12:07 mark on.
“The first nine minutes is exactly what we’ve stressed over the last couple of days… That’s exactly what the system looks like, when you score eight baskets and get eight assists on those plays,” Hoiberg said postgame. “[In the second half] the movement just wasn’t the same, and then we started driving into the pile again and turning the damn ball over.”
Badger senior forward Aleem Ford hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the visitors a 30-27 lead at the intermission, a position Nebraska was fortunate to be in given its poor play down the stretch. Nebraska’s fortune ran out in the second half, as it shot 30.8% from the field and 14.3% from 3-point range.
Seven early points from Wisconsin freshman guard Jonathan Davis set the tone for a second half the Badgers dominated, not allowing the Huskers to get closer than four points after the 16:48 mark. The Huskers’ play, as the numbers would indicate, was quite poor and nothing even close to resembling Hoiberg’s dynamic, fast-paced offense at Iowa State.
“I’ve never been a guy to slow it down, stop and run an action every time down the floor,” Hoiberg said. “I love the flow, when the defense is disorganized getting back into the play… I hate to throw up the stop sign and get into something every play, but that’s probably what it’s going to have to come to for a while until we can figure out our turnover issues.”
In the second half, Nebraska’s offense went stagnant and featured isolation-heavy play. Whether the lengthy layoff is at fault or not, Hoiberg’s postgame frustration in his team’s offensive execution was painfully clear.
It seems to be a per-game occurrence at this point for the Huskers. When the shots aren’t falling and the team is faced with some adversity, Nebraska chooses to play at its opponents tempo rather than continue to dictate the pace. It once again reared its head on Monday night.
“Early on we were moving the ball, playing for each other and doing all of the stuff we planned on doing going into the game,” sophomore guard Dalano Banton said postgame. “As the game went on we started gaining a little bit of selfishness, or whatever the case may have been.”
One area where Nebraska once again thrived was on the defensive side of the ball. Wisconsin shot a paltry 32.3% from the field and 28.1% from long range. Where the Badgers held the edge, though, was the turnover battle, with eight total compared to the Huskers’ 19. Davis was the lone Badger scorer to reach double-figures, although three Wisconsin players finished with nine points and two more had eight.
Still, the Husker defense was let down by a subpar offensive effort. Nebraska’s defense has been productive since the team returned from break, but it wasn’t enough to beat Wisconsin.
“I’ll say this, our defense for the third straight game has held our opponent under 40% [from the field], at 32% you should win that game,” Hoiberg said.
In another convincing conference loss, it’s harder to focus on the positive statistics and easier to dwell on the more alarming ones. 48 total points jumps out as the latter, the second-lowest point total of the Hoiberg era. The first came in his first game in charge, when the Huskers lost 66-47 to UC Riverside on Nov. 5, 2019. Layoff or not, it isn’t ideal for a team that plays the 26th-fastest basketball in the country, according to kenpom.com, to be finishing games in the 40s.
The second alarming statistic is the Huskers’ poor free throw percentage, a 41.2% mark that Hoiberg called “deflating.” The last shot of Wednesday night’s game came rather unceremoniously when sophomore forward Yvan Ouedraogo airballed the second of two free throws after badly missing the first. Nebraska went 7-of-17 from the charity stripe as a team, another problem from last year that seems to not go away.
The final number is 25, Nebraska’s current conference losing streak. It’s the second-longest active streak in the country behind Chicago State’s 42-game skid against conference opponents. And Nebraska hasn’t just fallen short during this monumental stretch of losses, it's been dominated.
Kenpom projects Nebraska to lose its remaining games, a task that isn’t improbable given the Big Ten’s quality and the Huskers possibly playing four times a week for the remainder of the season. Things don’t get much easier coming up, as No. 6 Illinois visits Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday.
The Fighting Illini propose a variety of matchup problems and are an incredibly solid unit. If Nebraska wants to compete, according to Hoiberg, it has to get back to learning to walk before it can learn to run.
“When we have fatigue physically and mentally, that’s where we’re making a lot of our mistakes,” Hoiberg said. “But, it shouldn’t continue to happen over and over again. That’s the frustrating part, and we gotta find a way to fix that… We gotta find a way to get back to valuing possessions and if we do that, call me crazy, but I still think we have a chance to win some games.”