Nebraska men’s basketball started the season exceptionally poorly with a loss to Western Illinois and, later, a rather poor loss to Creighton.
However, after those two early losses to start the season, the Huskers have responded as well as they could. On Sunday, the team easily handled Southern 82-59 in a game that was never close.
Here’s three takeaways from said rout:
Nebraska's 3-point shooting is bad
The team responded well from losses earlier in the week, but there’s one glaring flaw.
Nebraska’s struggles from behind the arc so far this season have been well-documented, but head coach Fred Hoiberg suggested earlier that it was due a levelling out.
This will probably still happen, sure. The levelling out Hoiberg referred to is bound to occur — it’s highly unlikely the team will average 1-of-14 from behind the arc like it did in the first half against Southern — but as poor shooting performances mount, one has to wonder at what percentage that levelling out will rest.
The big concern for future games will be the team’s overall shot quality. Several times throughout the game, the team found good opportunities. Opportunities of a classic Hoiberg variety where solid, knifing runs into the paint opened opportunities on the outside.
Though these shots were missed, they are also the kind which are bound to return to the mean. However, these weren’t all of Nebraska’s 3-point opportunities.
A common feature of Nebraska’s offense throughout Hoiberg’s tenure is a certain symptom when the team’s offense is out of ideas. When struggling, the team will pass the ball around the outside a bit, dribble and take shots.
These are invariably bad shots: off the dribble, contested and rather pallid. Some go in, but a lot don’t. It’d take a truly transcendental player to even hit them at a clip where they become acceptable.
Unfortunately for Hoiberg and the Huskers, this feature seems to have returned. No specific player takes exceptional responsibility for this problem, it more happens as a function of the team not doing its job offensively overall.
This is reflected in the team’s statline. By the end of the game, though it had missed all but four of its 3-point shots, no player finished with more than four attempts from behind-the-arc. Two players to note include sophomore guard Keisei Tominaga and senior guard Kobe Webster, both having the most egregious examples of this problem, but even they only took eight 3-pointers total.
Now, this comes with one big asterisk. Even very early on in the game, the result was basically decided. Up 10-4 five minutes into the game, it was clear Southern wasn’t a threat. The next five minutes were characterized by wild shooting and five straight misses.
For long spans in the game, the Huskers treated it more or less like a shootaround, as crude as it is to say. So, of course the team missed a number of shots. That being said, heading into the game, the Huskers were the 238th-worst 3-point shooting team in the country, worse than its mark last year. It now sits at a mere 27.2% per game overall, worst amongst all Hoiberg-coached Nebraska teams.
The 3-point shooting will improve, but by how much is a real concern as the season continues.
The free throw shooting is improved
One of the running narratives for Hoiberg’s Nebraska throughout his time has been its free throws production or, rather, its lack thereof.
In his first year with the team, the Huskers were infamously one of the worst free-throw shooting teams in the country, converting only 60.3% of its charity stripe shots, 351st out of 353 teams in the nation. Things only got moderately better in his second year. The team took more free throws overall, but it still slumped to an eventual 63.9%, 330th worst in the nation.
This carryover was made all the more quizzical by the team’s near-complete roster turnover, which didn’t seem to significantly help the team from the free-throw line.
In five games so far, the team has seen dramatic improvement in this area. It currently has the 79th-highest free throw percentage in the country while also retaining the 51st-highest free throws attempted over field goals attempted, meaning that the team is exceptional at drawing free throw attempts.
Against Southern, the team went 24-for-30 from the line, a remarkable note not only because of its solid 80% clip but also because of just how many fouls the Huskers drew against the Jaguars.
Without its free throw shooting, the team would be nearly lost. 23.3% of the team’s points come from free throws, only slightly less than the share held by 3-pointers.
Though drawing fouls will be harder against the elite shot blockers of the Big Ten, the team can rely on its free-throw shooting moving forward.
Bryce McGowens is living up to his potential early
A big reason for Nebraska’s free-throw improvement comes down to Nebraska’s resident freshman dynamo in guard Bryce McGowens.
McGowens has the 168th-highest free throw nationally rate so far this year, and the 146th highest fouls drawn per 40 minutes. This is also while hitting 87.1% of his free throws so far this year, good enough for 182nd in the nation.
His ability from the charity stripe was highlighted against Southern, where he went 10-of-10. McGowens was also deputized with some secondary ball handling responsibilities and utilized this well, converting four assists.
Some of McGowens’ playmaking was off; he had four turnovers on the night. These giveaways mostly come down to poor ideas and ill-advised wild switches to other sides of the court, but for a team without his brother, junior guard Trey McGowens, it will be necessary as the season continues.
Bryce McGowens also led the Huskers in rebounds with 10, an essential part in leading the team to out-rebound the Jaguars.
Bryce McGowens, as the school’s first five-star basketball recruit, had serious expectations placed upon him but, so far, it looks like he’ll live up to them.