Nebraska vs. Michigan Photo No. 1

Nebraska’s Lat Mayen (11) goes up to block a shot by Michigan’s Eli Brooks (55) during the game at Pinnacle Bank Arena on Friday, Dec. 25, 2020, in Lincoln, Nebraska.

Without any hyperbole, grand rhetoric or flourish, there are less than zero positive things to say about Nebraska men’s basketball performance against Ohio State on Wednesday night.

The Huskers so far have been a team with one core narrative. While they perform well in the first half, and even take it to opponents with far better pedigree than themselves, they collapse in the second. A late rally against Michigan seemed to ameliorate this situation, and heading into Columbus, Ohio, hopes were high that the narrative could change further.

To some extent, it did, but not in any direction the program would’ve hoped for. Head coach Fred Hoiberg’s unit was thoroughly embarrassed throughout both halves. Instead of a close game being decided by a breakaway opposition run four minutes into the second half, the 16-minute mark of this game only signified how much garbage time was left.

Here’s three takeaways from Nebraska’s 90-54 loss:

Nebraska’s cold offense a systemic problem

The “hot streak” of basketball is one of the most exciting to watch in all of sports. To shoot higher than 50% from the field at any one time is a near incredible feat, and therefore hitting shot after shot is a brilliant display of pure skill. However, one should never rely on hot streaks in order to form the backbone of an offense. Case in point, Nebraska.

While Hoiberg’s offensive ideology is highly predicated on the collective; on movement, energy and pushing the ball in early transition, what the Huskers have functionally become as of late is the 2001 Philadelphia 76ers — where every player is Allen Iverson and none of them are hitting shots.

What’s meant by this is heavy isolation play with one player trying unsuccessfully to take the mantle of primary scorer while the rest try to support that one player. It’s about as far from a Hoiberg offense as one could see.

While it looks passable when the likes of junior guard Teddy Allen gets hot, or when sophomore guard Dalano Banton is able to drive into the lane, what’s far more likely to happen is the 0-of-12 streak the Huskers went on, beginning eight minutes into the game. During this time period, it appeared that the well-worked Hoiberg offensive sets and philosophies which have been drilled into this team for a while now just fell apart. Instead, we got what appeared to be a lot of outside shots taken without much care for quality.

In fact, by the end of the game, the Huskers shot a heinous 5-of-33 from the 3-point line, good for just 15.2%. This season, when ball movement degrades in Nebraska’s offense, the team generally tends to shoot a lot more 3-pointers to compensate. This is because driving to the rim becomes a lot harder when the lanes are stuffed up. When Nebraska wins, it generally tends to have taken more 2-point shots than 3-point shots. In Nebraska’s four wins this season, this was the case in three of them. In Nebraska’s six losses, however, its 3-pointer to 2-pointer ratio was either equal or in the favor of 3-pointers three times.

When Nebraska’s offense goes cold, you can count on it shooting 3-pointers haphazardly. And this raises an important question: is this offensive dysfunction a local problem just for this team, or is this a flaw in Hoiberg’s coaching?

On the one hand, Hoiberg has proven that he can drill incredibly effective offensive units in the past. In his third season with Iowa State, the young head coach had the eighth-best offense in the country. However, since moving from the Cyclones, the story has been muddier. 

His Chicago Bulls team had an anemic offense which paralleled this Nebraska team far more than any one of his Iowa State offenses. Regardless, one could make the critique of Hoiberg’s overall tenure as a coach that sometimes he has trouble turning his philosophy into action on the court.

While one could easily point to Nebraska’s pace as evidence enough of Hoiberg’s impact on the team, this is an oversimplification. In fact, it’d probably be more accurate to say that this offense is something else entirely with only the appearance of a Hoiberg offense. And what the game against Ohio State evidently showed is that for long stretches, the ball movement that is arguably more important to a Hoiberg team than pace simply can’t be counted on right now.

The mechanism, too, by which the movement grinds to a halt is perplexing. There doesn’t seem to be any lineup, defense or look which necessitates Nebraska’s cold runs. It just appears that, after some set of time, the Huskers’ offense gives up and stops playing what it’s surely being drilled on.

While cold runs are inevitable in basketball, the causeless void that is Nebraska’s offense shouldn’t be attributed to natural statistical correction over a large sample size. It’s a problem of system, of drilling, and of morale.

Being a problem of system, it’s hard to lay offense’s blame at any one player

Nearly every player played about as bad as the other for Nebraska against Ohio State. The lone exception, in theory, would be Allen, who was the Huskers’ leading scorer on bad, but not horrific, shooting. 

One can go down the list of bad performances Wednesday. Junior forward Lat Mayen, who started the season off brightly, went 2-of-8 from the field and 1-of-6 from the 3-point line. He was one of the better players for the Huskers, because at least he made a 3-pointer. Banton, freshman guard Elijah Wood, junior guard Shamiel Stevenson, senior guard Kobe Webster, senior guard Thorir Thorbjarnarson all combined for 16 3-point attempts in total. They didn’t make a single one. This exercise, while demonstrative of Nebraska’s faults, would be misunderstanding what the Huskers’ problem really is.

Since, as stated, it is a problem of system and of team effort, no one player in this system can truly effect much to change that. While the likes of Webster, Allen and junior guard Trey McGowens can go on runs and post nicer-looking box scores from night to night, this tranche will not magically build up to a functional offense.

For Nebraska’s hero ball-heavy offense to work, it’d require solid enough ground to provide some base-level competition against opponents while not putting too much pressure on streakier players. The focus should be on the offense, not on the hot streak. Unfortunately for the Huskers, it would appear that the hot streak is all the team has, and when no player luckily breaks out, it results in ugly performances.

Nebraska’s 3-point defense suspect with Iowa looming less than month away

Over 100 possessions, Ohio State scores 114.5 points on average, good for seventh best in the nation. If Ohio State’s game against Nebraska was blown up to 100 possessions, the Buckeyes would’ve scored about 129 points. This would, obviously, be the best offense in the country if held over the course of a season and it wouldn’t be all that close.

And, of course, even this comes with the caveat that long swathes of the game were played with Ohio State’s second unit. Still, that didn’t seem to deter the Buckeyes.

The big reason for Ohio State’s dominance was its 3-point shooting. While the Buckeyes only average a 31.8% 3-point completion rate on 38.2% distribution, these numbers jumped up against Nebraska. By the end of the game, Ohio State shot 37.5% from beyond the arc on a 50% distribution. This means, if one follows from the statistics, that Ohio State not only shot better from the 3-point line, but also shot far more from the 3-point line than it typically does.

This isn’t unprecedented, but it’s also hard to attribute this fantastic 3-point shooting purely to the Buckeyes having an exceptionally good night. While Nebraska’s 3-point defense has been around average or below average this season, and its opponent 3-point distribution is also pretty good, the performance against Ohio State revealed key flaws in Nebraska’s defensive effort.

This is all put in the context of a brutal upcoming matchup against the nation’s top offense, Iowa, at the end of January. Last year, Nebraska snatched a win from the Hawkeyes off the back of an awful shooting night by Iowa at Pinnacle Bank Arena. However, if the defense’s troubles aren’t worked out by the time of the trip to Iowa City, things could get ugly fast. Currently, the Hawkeyes’ average 3-point shooting percentage is 37.2%, near equal with what Ohio State shot against Nebraska, and it was performing way above average.

What could Iowa do against Nebraska? If the Hawkeyes perform above average just as the Buckeyes did, one could see them shoot as high as 43% from the 3-point line on a similarly high 42.3% distribution. If nothing else, it’d be frightening to watch.