A win against Idaho State was never in doubt, something that’s nice to say after Nebraska’s start to the season.
That being said, the Huskers had a lot they needed to figure out against the Bengals. The loss of junior guard Trey McGowens, chronically underperforming behind-the-arc and generalized problems offensively, all of these were looming question marks heading into the game.
Obviously against the Bengals, currently the 218th team in all of college basketball per kenpom.com, any results would be colored favorably relative to Idaho State’s lack of quality. Still the team, if not answering questions, provided a blueprint for future games against the Bengals.
Here’s three takeaways from the game:
The offense works, with asterisks
One of Nebraska’s greatest problems early on in the season is its assist production. Last year, the Huskers managed a 54.6% assist per field goal made ratio, just about right for an offense led by head coach Fred Hoiberg, if not a little low.
This ratio was, for context, 99th highest in the nation. This season so far, the number has dropped all the way down to 262nd in the country. A mere 43.7% of the team’s made field goals have come off of assists. Against Western Illinois, the Huskers managed only six assists all game.
In the first half alone the Huskers managed 11 assists, more than the entire game against not only Western Illinois, but Sam Houston State as well. It’s only four less than the numbers against Creighton.
By the end of the game Friday, Nebraska had 18 assists, far eclipsing its total throughout the early part of the season.
There may be a few reasons for this. First, since the debacle against Western Illinois, the team’s assist numbers have risen steadily: 10 against Sam Houston State and 15 against Creighton. The Huskers coming to learn how best to use their offense may be a reason for the increase.
That being said, there’s probably also another reason. Senior guard Alonzo Verge Jr. has been an early focus of criticism for the dysfunctional Nebraska offense, but his assist numbers were used as a shield for the player. Of the six against Western Illinois, Verge had five, also notching seven against the Bearkats.
Friday indicated again that Verge’s assist numbers early were not evidence of his positive impact on the offense, but rather his negative impact on it.
However, those assists came while Verge inarguably dominated the ball. Heading into the game, Verge held a 36.2% usage rate, more than either of his predecessors in Cam Mack and Dalano Banton.
At the same time, though, Verge used a far greater percentage of those possessions to take shots as opposed to Mack and Banton. Banton took 20.1% of Nebraska’s shots while he was on the floor, and Mack took 20.4%. Verge, by comparison, sat at 38.4% of Nebraska’s shots heading into the game against Idaho State, a total percentage almost more than his predecessors combined.
To start the game, the Nebraska offense looked rather poor. Seven minutes into the game, Nebraska was down 12-11 after missing five shots in a row. Then, Verge was taken off. For the next five minutes with Verge off the court, Nebraska hit 12 points and also only conceded five, hitting 5-of-8 from the floor.
Of the Huskers’ 18 assists, Verge only had four. In Nebraska’s best offensive performance so far this season, Verge only had a 20.1% usage rate, much of it buoyed by garbage time. The team plays better when the guard’s role is minimized.
Walker plays well in role
Junior forward Derrick Walker Jr. had a rather questionable start to the year.
After easily winning the starting job in his first year playing in Lincoln, he managed a mere four points and six rebounds against Western Illinois. Against the Bearkats, Walker was outperformed both offensively and on the glass by freshman center Eduardo Andre.
Against the Bengals, the forward easily had his best performance of the year, primarily on the offensive end.
Playing against a rather small Bengals lineup, Walker was able to leverage his size effectively in the low post, and eventually ended with 15 points on 5-of-5 shooting, also hitting a few free throws in the process.
Walker’s role with the team is primarily as the roll man in pick and roll situations, with him rarely asked to do much to create by himself in the low post. Part of this is due to Hoiberg’s system, and also the general inefficiency of low-post situations as a rule.
That being said, Walker’s impressive performance may be evidence that Hoiberg should entrust him with more offensive duties of that nature, even if it works against his philosophy. Of course, it’ll be less effective against the fearsome bigs of the Big Ten, but if in a pinch widening the offense’s portfolio isn’t a bad idea.
Without Trey McGowens, jury’s still out on the defense
The player Hoiberg called the “heart and soul” of the team in the wake of his injury, McGowens was always going to be hard to replace.
Of course, on the season so far, he was rather poor offensively. McGowens hadn’t taken a 3-pointer before his injury and shot a mere 38.5% from inside the arc, his best offensive contribution coming from the number of fouls he drew.
The last of these points is rather impressive, it’s true — McGowens currently ranks 154th in the nation for fouls drawn per 40 per kenpom.com — but his contribution wasn’t offensive, it was defensive.
Nebraska’s defense under Hoiberg has prided itself on two things: making the opponent miss a lot of 3-pointers and managing a lot of steals. The former of these is rather wacky statistically, but the latter is where McGowens shined.
Defenses which rely on steals require a fair amount of hustle for when the gambles don’t work. Even the teams with the best pickpockets need to have backup plans for when it just doesn’t work, or else the defense is regularly blown up.
McGowens as not only the point-of-attack defender but also one of the better players steal-wise in the country, 469th per kenpom.com, solved this problem inherent to a turnover-heavy defense.
While the defense performed at about par against the Bengals, there wasn’t enough to feel comfortable either way in a prediction. It ended the game with eight steals, around as many as against Creighton and the Bearkats, but Idaho State is also a turnover-heavy team.
The Huskers had no dedicated point-of-attack defender against Idaho State, with Verge and Trey’s brother, freshman guard Bryce McGowens, taking it most. Freshman guard Keon Edwards, a surprise inclusion to the starting lineup, also took it at points.
The other half of Nebraska’s defense also featured is its odd ability to force the opposition to miss a lot of 3-pointers. Of Idaho State’s 51 shots, 37 were 3-pointers, an absurdly high 72% distribution. Heading into the game, the Bengals had a rather normal 44% distribution.
These 37 3-pointers were effective early, but went south quickly. By the end of the game, the Bengals had hit a mere 12 of their 37 shots from beyond-the-arc, a key part in Nebraska’s victory.
In the end, the team did its job defensively while retaining its identity, which is all it needed to do against Idaho State.