Haanif Cheatham

Nebraska’s Haanif Cheatham (22) dunks the ball during the match against Penn State at the Pinnacle Bank Arena on Saturday, Feb. 1, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

After a string of increasingly hopeless defeats, it was clear something needed to change for the Huskers going into Tuesday’s matchup to Maryland. Not because it would change results or give spark to a depressed team. Rather, the change became necessary for the fans and for head coach Fred Hoiberg.

The fans needed something to be interested in, and Hoiberg needed to tool towards a more perfect team and scheme. What fans saw against Maryland is appealing. The offense had much less of the quick-in-transition runners of old, and something more approaching the spread pick-and-roll offense of the Houston Rockets today. 

With that in mind, here’s three takeaways from Nebraska’s loss to Maryland.

Switch-heavy defense does well

Nebraska’s defense has been relatively ordinary this season, as it is currently ranked at 164th in the nation in defensive rating according to kenpom.com. That rating puts Nebraska at  just about average nationally, but one of the worst in the Big Ten.

However, the Huskers went into Tuesday night’s game with a good gameplan in mind. It stressed forcing the 3-pointer out of the opposition and letting sophomore forward Jalen Smith do what he wants. After all, it’s impossible for any one player to completely replicate the production of a team. 

Maryland is pretty poor from the 3-point line despite its high distribution of 3-pointers. This represented a pre-packaged gameplan that the Huskers could exploit. The Huskers are one of the better 3-point defensive teams in the country, ranking 107th in opposition 3-point percentage. 

The way the Huskers did this was through having their small ball lineup utilize a switch-heavy defense. This meant that little was lost off of screens and that Smith’s impact would be mitigated against the rest of his team’s output.  After all, the post defending in Hoiberg’s starting lineup was basically a non-factor anyway, and giving that up allowed Nebraska lots of options defending entry passes.

This strategy paid off, with Maryland only hitting 7-23 3-pointers. Jalen Smith generally hit his shots, but his usage rate was actually less than usual. This is all promising, but probably shouldn’t be seen as representative of some kind of defensive renaissance for the Huskers. There was a clear defensive scheme that could be exploited by the Huskers, and such a clear scheme isn’t necessarily available all the time, depending on the opponent.

Nebraska rebounds far better than expected

Maryland is the 57th best offensive rebounding team in the nation currently. Nebraska, on the other hand, is one of the worst at giving up offensive rebounds, currently ranked 338th in the nation. And, by playing a lineup where its tallest player was 6-foot-6, it would stand to reason that Nebraska was accepting its rebounding deficiency.

However, Nebraska put together one of its best rebounding performances of the year. Generally speaking, Nebraska basketball’s high negative rebounding differentials is due to the opposition grabbing a lot more defensive rebounds off of Nebraska missed shots. That’s part of the reason why the rebounding differential was only -1 against Maryland; Nebraska hit a lot more shots than usual.

This, however, doesn’t necessarily explain how close the offensive rebounding differentials were. Actually, Nebraska outrebounded Maryland by two, something that was completely unexpected. Part of the reason for this may be due to the number of 3-pointers Nebraska took, with 3-pointers being more than half of its shots. 3-pointers are generally rebounded by the offense at a higher percentage than 2-pointers because they travel farther from the basket. This was also one of the games with the highest distribution of 3-pointers for Nebraska, despite the fact that it only hit 7-33. This was the gameplan Nebraska subscribed to, in many ways, and the rebounding turned out to be a happy side effect of it.

Old heads show up, young guns less so

Some of Nebraska’s best players this season have also been their most exciting. Mack, Cross, and freshman guard Charlie Easley have all delighted at points during the season at different times. The upperclassmen, however, have been hot-and-cold. Junior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson is one of Nebraska’s most impactful players, but senior guards Haanif Cheatham and Matej Kavas have severely underwhelmed at times during the season.

The latter two did well to make amends for past mistakes, and it can only be hoped that they continue this newfound form. Cheatham went 7-11 from the floor and 6-7 on 2-pointers. His offensive production has been pretty poor throughout the season, mostly used as a last scoring option or sometimes as a transition outlet. He’s currently averaging 11.9 points per game, but impact metrics like Box Plus-Minus generally rank him pretty low. Scoring 20 points against a stout Maryland team may prove to be one of his best performances of the year.

Kavas, on the other hand, has continually had a rough go of it. Averaging only 5.3 points per game this season and shooting 32 percent from the 3-point line (despite being billed as a shooter), Kavas saw his minutes continually decrease throughout the season. His performance against Maryland, however, should be commended, going 2-4 from the 3-point line and scoring 11 points.

Mack had one of his worst games of the season scoring, only going 1-10 from the field, good for four points because of two free throws. His free throw rate was generally poor despite his insistence on driving to the rim. And his decision at the end to take a shot, while commendable in its confidence, may’ve been better supplanted by a shot from one of his open teammates. One of the only bright spots for Mack’s performance was his eight assists, but given Mack’s role in the offense this production can generally be expected. For Mack, this is a night to forget.