Nebraska won against Washington State in the first game of the Cayman Island Classic, and showed a lot of good. However, it’s important to ask the question of whether or not the good Nebraska showed is indicative of improvement or an aberration. Here’s three takeaways that seek to answer that question:
Nebraska rebounded better, but don’t expect this going forward
Nebraska was completely out-rebounded against Southern and it naturally was going to be a talking point going into the game against Washington State. Nebraska, for its credit, held its own against Washington State, only being out-rebounded by three. This is significantly better than its average rebound differential of -14.5.
However, there are some things to consider before we can say Nebraska has corrected its rebounding problem. First, Washington State isn’t an overly physical team, only having one 7-foot player on their roster and also have struggled to rebound this year. Against much more physical Big 10 teams, Nebraska will still have to face off against teams with significantly more rebounding acumen.
There’s some promising signs in that both senior guard Haanif Cheatham and junior guard Jervay Green were able to grab eight rebounds, better than their averages of five and 4.5 per game, respectively. Still, this was against a team that’s also bad with rebounds.
3-point efficiency continues
One of the biggest early-season narratives for Nebraska was its lack of ability from the 3-point line. Nebraska averaged 21.2 percent from the 3-point line in its first two games, but has since averaged 43 percent, only brought down by a slightly subpar performance against South Dakota State where the Huskers shot 7-26 from the line.
The 50 percent 3-point shooting performance against Washington State shows a continuation of a streak started against Southern, where Nebraska shot 57.1 percent for the game from beyond the arc. Just as 21.2 percent was hardly sustainable, so is 57.1 percent or even 50 percent. Expect these numbers to level off soon, at best reaching that 43 percent which the team has averaged since South Dakota State. A more reasonable estimate for Nebraska would be around 36.8 percent, which is what Iowa State shot from the 3-point line in head coach Fred Hoiberg’s first year with the team.
One of the reasons for Nebraska’s 3-point streak may be that its taking significantly less of them. Against both UC Riverside and Southern Utah, Nebraska shot 26 3-pointers. However, in the games against Southern and Washington State, Nebraska shot 21 and 18, respectively. Being more selective in 3-point shots, and not forcing poor opportunities, may be part of the reason for the improvement. It should also be noted that being more selective in shots also means, for Hoiberg, taking more time in getting those shots. This lowers the overall pace of the offense and that can be seen with Nebraska taking fewer field goal attempts per quarter in the games against Southern and Washington State than its average.
The enduring question of free throws
While Nebraska seems to have turned a corner in its 3-point shooting percentage, it has not in its free throw percentage. Nebraska consistently shoots at or below 50 percent from the free throw line, and with the 3-pointers starting to fall, this becomes less understandable.
Basically, there’s a strong positive correlation between a player’s free-throw percentage and their 3-point percentage. There’s a lot more factors, obviously, but this statement basically holds true. With Nebraska being bad at both free-throws and the 3-point shot, both generally made sense. But now, with 3-pointers going in, neither makes sense.
Nebraska largely constructed the roster around 3-point shooting. Before this year at Nebraska, Green shot 39 percent from the 3-point arc in junior college, junior guard Dachon Burke Jr. shot 34 percent and Cheatham shot 36.4 percent. However, with these 3-point shooters, it’s important to note that none of them were good from the charity stripe.
Nebraska’s free throw woes this season are largely predictable partly due to the poor free-throw shooting of its parts. Amongst players who average more than one free throw attempt per game, Nebraska averages about 55 percent completion, and there’s only one player on the roster who is significantly underperforming their free throw percentage against their previous career totals.
That player is Cheatham, who shot 75 percent from the free throw line in his career, but is now shooting a team-low 39 percent. The important thing to note, though, is that Cheatham had long been deteriorating as a free throw shooter since his first year at Marquette, going from 82 percent to 77 percent to 57 percent in his last year at Marquette.
Green is shooting 53 percent from the charity stripe this year and shot 53.6 percent in junior college. Sophomore guard Cam Mack shot 65 percent from the free-throw line last year and is shooting 59 percent this year, one of the biggest differentials on the roster.