The Nebraska men’s basketball team was exceptionally poor Saturday in a 93-65 loss to Rutgers, falling to 0-5 in conference play.
After weeks of seeming improvement, starting with a win over Kennesaw State and progressing with narrow losses to Ohio State and Michigan State, the Huskers took a significant step back against the Scarlet Knights.
Here’s three takeaways from the game:
Nebraska’s interior defense collapses
One of Nebraska’s strongest points heading into the game was its interior defense. Excellent scheming against Ohio State junior forward EJ Liddell silenced one of the nation’s best players, while the team also played well against Michigan State senior center Marcus Bingham Jr.
It fell apart against the Scarlet Knights.
It’s a little hard to identify just how open Nebraska’s defense was against Rutgers. Constantly, throughout the game, the low post was open. For some reason, the ball would keep finding its place, mostly at the left in the paint, and there’d be nobody covering.
Part of this is probably down to the team’s switching, but it’s also contingent on mass confusion in the Huskers’ mixed-zone scheme. Both junior forward Derrick Walker or freshman forward Eduardo Andre assumed roles deep inside the paint, and both were serious factors in Rutgers’ scoring.
Against Rutgers, Walker and Andre were left ball-watching often, and this left the likes of sophomore forward Dean Reiber and senior forward Ron Harper Jr. open, in free space right under the basket.
The case of Reiber, in this instance, is especially egregious. He finished the game with 10 points on 4-of-6 shooting. Before the game, he had only taken nine shots inside the arc all season, and played less than 10% of the team’s minutes.
Not all the blame lies on the big men, however, as the whole team throughout the afternoon was left confused on its assignments, when to let a player go and when to switch.
The dysfunction was so total against the Scarlet Knights that part of the responsibility also ought to be laid at the feet of coaching, which didn’t properly prepare the team for Rutgers’ offensive looks or setup.
3-point defense falters further
From the inside to the outside, Rutgers exceptional 3-point shooting ought to worry the Huskers.
By the end of the game, the Scarlet Knights had shot an incredible 55.6% from the 3-point line on 18 shots. This is not common for them. Rutgers is on average a rather middling 3-point shooting team, currently 148th in the nation according to kenpom.com. And yet, the team spread the 3-point shooting out considerably.
The aforementioned Reiber hit both his attempts, and so did sophomore forward Aundre Hyatt. The caveat here is that a lot of the 3-pointers were taken during garbage time, which in this case meant more than half the second half, but the point stands.
The Huskers so far this season have given up a significant number of 3-pointers. They are the 294th team in the nation for opposition 3-pointer completion percentage and, more importantly, 299th in the nation for opposition 3-point distribution.
This statistic is not an accident; in a very real sense, it’s a choice. A gamble perhaps, but a choice. In previous seasons under head coach Fred Hoiberg, the team had given up a high distribution of 3-pointers, but active defense countered that fact with an excellent opposition 3-point completion rate. This propelled the Huskers to a top-50 defense last season, according to kenpom.com.
This season, the defense has retracted. In an era which consistently prizes 3-pointers due to what essentially amounts to physics, the incontrovertible fact that three is greater than two, the defense has decided to play the inside game.
Against some teams, this works well enough. The Liddell shutdown is instructive here. But it also results in games like the Michigan loss, the Auburn loss or now, the loss against Rutgers.
The offense has no notes
Interestingly, despite the blowout loss, the offense played well enough. Or, rather, no part of the offense played particularly poorly.
The team didn’t turn the ball over too often, shot poorly from the 3-point line but better than average for the Huskers and hit 49.1% of its shots overall. Walker on the offensive end was less efficient than usual, but still went 6-of-11 from the field.
Freshman guard Bryce McGowens had a pretty good game, too. He went 5-of-9 from the field with six made free throws on six attempts. Given the guard’s rather inefficient start to Big Ten play, the performance against Rutgers, where he finished with 17 points, will allay some fears from both Hoiberg and potential NBA scouts.
The only noticeably weak part of the offense in Nebraska’s performance was its free-throw game. Usually, the Huskers rely on free throws as a key part of their offensive production. 19.1% of their points in total come from free throws, the 97th highest in college basketball.
Against the Scarlet Knights, the Huskers only took 12 free throws and made seven, only 10% of their total points distribution.
Nebraska’s average offensive performance does not, however, vindicate it. It instead points further to the aggressive collapse the team experienced on the other end.