For some, Nebraska’s overtime loss to Northwestern represented a natural endpoint to the regular season. It was the last game Nebraska was slated to win. However, because things don’t always work out that way, Nebraska was slated to play two more games after last Sunday’s brutal loss to Northwestern.
Against Michigan, the first of Nebraska’s last two games, the Huskers lost 82-58. Despite the large margin of victory for the Wolverines, the game is another learning experience for the Huskers, an invaluable thing for head coach Fred Hoiberg’s first season.
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers
One of Nebraska’s best qualities over the regular season so far has been ball protection. In non-steal turnover percentage, the Huskers ranked 27th in the nation according to kenpom.com. On top of this, the Huskers ranked 35th in steal turnover percentage on offense. Overall, Nebraska ranks 20th in the nation in turnover percentage.
There is a stylistic reason for the Huskers’ lack of turnovers. High-paced offenses try and prioritize quick, clear passes in order to improve spacing and few players hold onto the ball for a long time. As a result, steal and non-steal turnover percentages are lower. This is reflected in other high-pace offenses, for example, Iowa, the 66th fastest team in the country, ranks 44th in non-steal turnover percentage and Alabama, the third-fastest team in the country, ranks 23rd.
Nebraska’s low turnover percentage comes out to about 11.6 turnovers per game. In the first half against Michigan, Nebraska had 12 turnovers, its highest amount in a half since the start of the season.
The absence of sophomore guard Cam Mack can explain some of these turnovers. Without the playmaking efforts of Mack, possessions had a tendency to stall out as less-creative ball-handling guards tried to fill his offensive role.
The problem with that line of reasoning is Mack sat out two other games this season, and in neither of those games did Nebraska significantly underperform its turnover average. Against Penn State and Illinois, the Huskers only had 13 turnovers in each game.
Michigan isn’t a fantastic team when it comes to forcing turnovers either. In fact, Michigan has the 336th worst turnover percentage on defense in the country. This means Nebraska’s gameplan could’ve conceivably been focused around playing daring basketball because the fear of turnovers was nearly nonexistent.
Nebraska’s turnovers against Michigan were one of the least expected parts of this game, and while no one thing could’ve won the game for the Huskers, Nebraska will look back at its turnovers as one of the biggest reasons for the loss.
Fred Hoiberg shows game management prowess
Hoiberg has long cultivated a reputation of being a kind of basketball philosopher rather than as a game manager. However, the game against Michigan showed some prowess in making decisions in high-tension situations.
Things looked scary just three minutes into the game as Michigan jumped to an 11-2 lead. Visions of Nebraska’s loss to Creighton creeped back into focus, where Nebraska was outscored 27-4 in the first 10 minutes of the game.
After a smart timeout from Hoiberg, the Huskers came out swinging. A jumper, layup and a free throw helped to pull the game back within four points, but even after Michigan started to pull away again after that, Nebraska had effectively stopped the run through some tinkering by Hoiberg. The Huskers even pulled the game to within a point in the first half, threatening to overtake the lead.
The Huskers are not as talented as Michigan. To hide this, Hoiberg needed to play smart and identify when his team was faltering. In the end, it was too hard to sustain over 40 minutes, but that first decision in the first half remains a significant one. If the game went on for even one or two more possessions, the score could’ve been even uglier.
Cheatham continues strong run of form
In Mack’s absence, his usage needed to be either distributed amongst the team, or focused on one player. The Huskers opted for the former, but the efforts of senior guard Haanif Cheatham helped to alleviate some of the problems presented by Mack’s suspension.
Cheatham, unfortunately, has had his best string of games for the Huskers only very recently. Against Northwestern on Senior Day, Cheatham had 20 points on 7-11 shooting.
Against Michigan the first time, Cheatham had a great game by his standards. He shot 7-11 from the field and scored 17 points. He may’ve hoped that the Northwestern game combined with his last game against Michigan would result in a good performance for the guard.
That hope came to fruition as Cheatham was easily Nebraska’s best offensive player on the court, registering an offensive rating of 104 and scoring 19 points on 6-14 shooting. His efficiency wasn’t necessarily up to par, but he did shoot 6-8 from the free throw line, one of the best performances from a Husker all year from the charity stripe.
Despite a disappointing start to the season, Cheatham’s performances in recent weeks should help embolden him in whatever he does next.