There was a moment early into the game which showed growth of a different sort for Nebraska under head coach Fred Hoiberg. 15 minutes through the first half, with Nebraska on a 0-12 dry spell, freshman forward Kevin Cross went into the low post and moved into a strong layup. He earned an and-one and the team huddled for a second, completely focused, ready to close out the first half strong.
Things started well from that moment, with Nebraska forcing a travel and scoring again to cut the deficit to four, but an injury to sophomore guard Cam Mack deflated the Husker offense, and the first half ended poorly for Nebraska. The second half, despite Mack’s return, went just as poorly, as Nebraska sunk to a heavy defeat.
Cam Mack has gravity
Gravity in basketball is a hard thing to quantify but when people talk about gravity they’re generally referring to the ability a player has to warp a defense and force a defense to cover them. For example, Stephen Curry has a lot of gravity from the 3-point line because he can hit shots at such a frequency that defense is forced to cover him beyond the arc. Someone like Anthony Davis has gravity in the post as players are forced to seriously cover him.
Mack has this kind of gravity, forcing players to respect his variety of pick-and-roll reads (his skip pass out to the corner and wing, a weakness early in the season, has improved mightily) and also his immense slashing ability. His drives to the rim are deadly and teams can’t plant a big man on him and hope for the best. If the defense prevents both of these things, Mack can hit the 3-pointer. Mack showed all of this early into the game and was a big reason for Nebraska’s early 15-10 run, his gravity warping defenses and creating open shots by simply being on the court.
Mack was arguably Nebraska’s most important player until late in the first half when, going strong for a rebound, he collided with graduate forward Akwasi Yeboah and knocked heads. He went into the locker room and the small amount of momentum Nebraska found vanished.
Defensive woes create Nebraska catch-22
If one gives up the paint, it’s under the assumption that 3-point shots are more valuable anyway and giving up some efficiency in the paint for better 3-point defense is a good trade. The inverse is also true, as guarding the paint is based on the assumption that 3-pointers are only so valuable over the course of the game and defending the paint will prevent easy shots for the opposing offense.
Nebraska attempted the former, at first, and the active perimeter defense led to a number of shot clock violations early in the game. Rutgers responded with more 3-point shots, at which point they started to fall. Spacing the floor out in such a way and forcing Nebraska to not only defend the 3-point shot, but also fear it, left the paint wide open. Nebraska became unable to guard either the paint or 3-point line effectively. When guarding the paint, Rutgers shot better in the paint and when guarding the 3-point line Rutgers shot better from the 3-point line. Nebraska reached a dangerous level of defensive analysis-paralysis and Rutgers capitalized fully.
Where Nebraska’s 3-point distribution was a high 49 percent, it only capitalized on 25.8 percent of those shots. By comparison, Rutgers shot far fewer 3-pointers at 23 percent distribution, but made 33 percent of those 3-pointers. This, coupled with Rutgers’ 52 points in the paint, neutralized Nebraska’s nine extra points made on 3-pointers.
Freshman forward Yvan Ouedraogo, despite turning a corner performance-wise through the month of December, was taken advantage of majorly in the paint, and as the only forward in the lineup could find little rest from Rutgers’ paint dominance.
Nebraska fashions second-chance opportunities, does not take them
Nebraska just about doubled its average number of offensive rebounds per game, grabbing 15 despite an average of 8.9. However, this tenacity on the glass was met with no second-chance points throughout the game.
Second-chance opportunities are important for high-pace offenses. Pace is literally a measure of how many possessions a team has and therefore grabbing an offensive rebound not only increases Nebraska’s pace, but it also does so without giving Rutgers a possession. This is all well and good in theory, but being unable to capitalize on those opportunities meant that an above-average rebounding performance had no impact on the game.
Further, Rutgers effectively strangled the game through its offensive possessions, almost always taking at least 15-17 seconds in its possessions. This stifled the tempo Nebraska thrives in, and converting on its offensive possessions put the game out of reach for the Huskers.